Gun violence: NC needs a red flag law
The grim news of the gun massacre at an LGBTQ nightclub in Colorado Springs felt deeply personal to me, coming so soon after one at the University of Virginia took the life of a young North Carolinian, and another in Raleigh’s Hedingham neighborhood. The everyday proceedings of life seemed to pause, again, as the brutal dimensions of an oddly familiar story unfolded — a young man with a rifle, a crowded public space, a hail of bullets. Five dead, 25 injured.
How could it happen? From my perspective as a behavioral scientist, there are three ingredients to a hate-driven gun massacre. First, you need an irrational belief in a threatening “other,” an expressed loathing of an expendable, dehumanized “them.” That’s oxygen for the fire — easily spread through social media’s echo chambers. Second, you need the killing technology of firearms — enough destructive energy to extinguish many lives quickly with minimal effort. Semi-automatic rifles are designed for that purpose. Firearms are the accessible fuel of mass killing.
Still, oxygen and fuel cannot by themselves burn down a forest. For that, you need a spark. And what, exactly, provides the ignition in the brain of a potential mass killer? Why does he follow this uniquely American deviant cultural script?
There is no easy answer. Public mass shooters have different motivations, ranging from a stew of alienation, extreme anger and impulsivity to rare manifestations of acute psychopathology that can exacerbate irrational threat perception and disinhibit violent urges. We just don’t really know.
But we also know there is something we can do about it. In states with the right legal framework, ordinary citizens can help.
It is often the case that, prior to a gun violence tragedy, someone — perhaps a teacher, coach, friend or family member — was alert to an escalation of extreme anger or threatening behavior on the part of someone with access to firearms. Nineteen states and D.C. have enacted Extreme Risk Protection Order laws, also known as “red flag” laws to enable ordinary citizens to do something about that.
Red flag laws empower law enforcement officers to obtain a civil restraining order from a judge to separate firearms temporarily from people at high risk of harming themselves or others. These orders are not criminalizing. They are time limited. They offer due process protections and respect the Second Amendment. They are supported by majorities of Americans. And they save lives.
Sadly, these laws are not a perfect solution. In Virginia, officials investigated the gunman but at the time found no evidence he possessed a weapon.
But colleagues and I have evidence that red flag laws can save lives. Early research from Connecticut and Indiana estimated that for every 10-20 risk-based gun removal actions, one life was saved by averting a suicide. New research from six states, including Colorado, finds that 1 in 10 extreme risk protection orders involved a person who threatened a multiple victim shooting.
North Carolina doesn’t have such a law. In Raleigh, Robert Steele lost his fiancé, Mary Marshall , in the Hedingham shooting. Last week, he stood up at a public forum to speak of his grief and anger and lend his voice to a growing call in North Carolina for a red flag law.
There is no one solution to gun violence in America, and some solutions are off the table. We cannot broadly limit legal access to guns, as many other countries do. We live in a country with a deeply entrenched gun culture and a constitutionally protected individual right to bear arms.
But gun violence is a public health problem; it doesn’t have to be a political issue. The new federal Bipartisan Safer Communities Act provides funding for states to implement an ensemble of reforms, including red flag laws. It shows that Americans across the political spectrum can work together to start solving a problem as big and complicated as gun violence.
North Carolinians who want to stop the next Hedingham, UVA or Colorado Springs should tell elected representatives to join states like Florida and Indiana and pass a red flag law. Guns are here to stay. But we can learn to live safely with guns, instead of die by them.