‘Red Flag’ Laws to Prevent Gun Violence Lack Public Awareness: California Study

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California’s gun violence restraining orders (GVROs) can help prevent firearm violence, but many Californians are largely unaware of how to obtain them―or even that they exist, according to the Violence Prevention Research Program at UC Davis Health.

The only way for the laws, known colloquially as “Red Flag Orders,” to protect potential perpetrators, their families, and the public from future harm, is for people to know how to use them, say the authors of the study, which was published in this month’s JAMA (Journal of the American Medical Association) Forum.

 “With renewed interest in short-term crisis interventions to prevent firearm injury and death amid the COVID-19 pandemic—at a time when firearm purchasing has increased and conditions that elevate the risk of harm have worsened, [it is important] to identify opportunities to improve messaging and increase uptake of GVROs,” the study said.

Two-thirds of a statistically representative sample of 2,870 Californians who participated in a July, 2020 survey conducted by the authors said they never heard of GVROs, even though they have been available for five years.

California was the first state to introduce ”Red Flag” orders, also known as “Extreme Risk Protection Orders (ERPOs). They now exist in 19 states and the District of Columbia.

On Monday, the Biden administration announced plans to prepare model legislation for states that wished to introduce similar orders, CNN reported.

“Outside groups have collected studies that show that in states that have adopted these laws, there’s been, for example, a decrease in suicide and firearm related suicides,” a Justice Department said.

Studies of Connecticut and Indiana’s extreme risk laws estimated that for every 10-20 firearm removal orders issued, at least one suicide was averted, according to the October 2020 study on the Consortium for Risk-Based Firearm Policy, CNN added.

The orders allow law enforcement, family and household members, some co-workers, employers and teachers to work with a judge to temporarily remove access to firearms and ammunition from people at significant risk of self-harm or harming others.

The concept gained traction after the 2018 mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High school in Parkland, Fl.

These orders are “targeted, flexible, and proactive tools for temporarily suspending an individual’s access to firearms and ammunition when a judge has deemed the person to be at increased risk of firearm-related harm to themselves or others and they are not otherwise prohibited from firearm ownership,” according to the study authors.

The number of GRVO orders in California increased significantly from 70 in 2016 to 700 in 2019, but the “overall uptake has been slow the researchers said.

ERPO laws also have bipartisan support and less pushback from guns rights organizations.

The National Rifle Association lobbied Congress to provide funding for states to adopt these laws after the Parkland shooting.

So the lag can’t be blamed on Second Amendment supporters not liking the law, but on a “lack of awareness,” the researchers wrote.

In the study, researchers used data from the 2020 California Safety and Wellbeing Survey on firearm ownership and exposure to violence and its consequences to compile their cross-sectional review.

Respondents were asked about their knowledge of red flag laws. After reading a description of a GVRO law, they were asked about the appropriateness of the law and whether they would be willing to apply to a judge for one to help a family member.

Participants were grouped by firearm status: firearm owners, non-owners who live with owners, and non-owners in households without firearms.

According to the study, firearm owners were significantly more likely than non-owners who live with owners and non-owners to have heard of either GVRO s or a red flag law.

More than 80 percent of respondents said they would be somewhat or very willing to ask a judge to use a GVRO during these scenarios.

Non-owners who live with owners reported the highest level of willingness to ask a judge for a GVRO, ranging from 84 percent in the case of an emotional crisis to 95 percent in the case of threats to physically hurt someone.

But some 30 percent showed a lack of willingness.

“The most frequently cited reason for being unwilling was not knowing enough about GVROs,” the study found.

In other words, those who have no knowledge on these GRVO laws are much less likely to obtain an order during a time of crisis compared to those who are aware of the law.

“Firearm violence is preventable, not inevitable,” said Nicole Kravitz-Wirtz, lead author of the study and an assistant professor at UC Davis, affiliated with the Violence Prevention Research Program.

“Raising public awareness about proactive ways for people to intervene can be crucial for preventing violence before it occurs.”

So far this year, there has been 256 mass shootings in 2021, reports the Gun Violence Archive.

On May 26, California suffered its 18th mass shooting this year in San Jose, says ABC7 News.

California Assembly Member Phil Ting, whose 2019 bill, AB61, expanded who can get a GRVO, said a situation like the San Jose shooting was exactly what he was aiming to prevent with his bill.

Ting also pointed out that many don’t even know they can request one, since they aren’t being used enough.

If the public were more aware of these laws as a resource to use when they begin to notice a loved one going through a crisis or behaving dangerously, injuries and deaths from firearm violence might be reduced, the study said.

“ERPOs have been used in efforts to prevent mass been used in efforts to prevent mass harm, and that they may be particularly effective in preventing suicide,” the researchers added.

The study urged policymakers to step up public awareness campaigns similar to the efforts made to shift public understanding of intimate partner violence, that can ”normalize the process of intervening to reduce an at-risk individual’s access to guns as an issue affecting society as a whole…rather than only as a private problem.”

Equally important was the need to address concerns among firearm about due process and “the notion that it is never appropriate for the government to regulate a person’s access to guns.”

“Access to a firearm during what is often an impulsive act of self-harm can mean the difference between death and survival,” the study said.

The full report can be accessed here.

Gabriela Felitto is a TCR Justice Reporting intern.

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