How many firearms exist in the United States? How confident are we that these weapons are in capable hands? What happens when a gun owner is no longer responsible? What recourse can society take to ensure that the mentally unstable cannot easily harm themselves or others?
No one, including the U.S. government, knows for sure the number of guns in America. Estimates vary between 270 to 310 million weapons, or close to one firearm for every man, woman and child. Let’s assume the majority of these guns are purchased legally by responsible, law-abiding citizens. What happens when a stable gun owner becomes unstable? Since it is relatively easy to purchase any type of firearm (especially rifles) in most states, what happens when a dangerous person slips through the cracks?
In Florida a mentally unbalanced 18-year old was able to acquire a weapon despite numerous warning signs, including violent, threatening behavior. Over the past few years, the alleged Parkland Florida shooter had several run-ins with local police and was under the care of a behavioral therapist.
Local police were called to his home dozens of times for domestic violence situations, his school had expelled him for erratic behavior, and the FBI and other law enforcement agencies had received calls warning that he might attempt to carry out a school shooting.
Yet, there were no arrests and no recommendations for involuntary commitment, allowed per Florida law, for individuals deemed a danger to themselves or others. Thus, there was no official record that would prevent him from purchasing a weapon.
The gun dealer that sold the AR-15 semi-automatic rifle, used in the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting, followed proper protocol. The National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS) is not designed to analyze warning signs or calculate preemptively.
Certainly, more intervention and follow through was needed in this situation. But in too many cases, firearms are sold to individuals with no criminal or violent history yet with the inclination to do real harm. A red flag law provides law enforcement the authority to do something rarely feasible… confiscate guns from a dangerous person.
Five states have enacted red flag laws while 24 additional states, including Pennsylvania, are considering similar bills. The law establishes a judicial process in which guns could be temporarily seized from those deemed dangerous. The restraining order is requested by someone close to the individual — a parent or guardian, teacher or member of law enforcement — and evidence is presented before a judge. If the petition is granted, weapons are seized immediately and held for at least a year. An individual can challenge the order and a petition can be extended if a judge deems it necessary.
These laws are designed to be fair and transparent and are not intended to indiscriminately seize guns. In a meeting with members of Congress last week, President Trump offered his support but went a step too far, saying “take the guns first, go through due process second.” I disagree. Due process is a fundamental part of our nation’s legal framework and should not be so easily dismissed.
The purpose of red flag laws is not to eliminate guns but to safeguard a community or an individual from a potentially dangerous situation.
Red flag laws could stop the next mass shooting but they also could prevent an unstable person from taking his/her life. For someone undergoing emotional stress, easy access to a gun could be the difference between life and death. Ninety percent of people who attempt suicide with a gun die while 90 percent of those who use some other method live. Firearms offer little room for second chances.
Republican state Rep. Todd Stephens is introducing a red flag bill in Pennsylvania. This bipartisan solution could make a real difference when it comes to preventing gun violence.
The NRA opposes red flag laws while contending its support for keeping guns out of the hands of criminals and the mentally ill. The NRA should not prevent our elected officials from making Pennsylvania safer.
Call your state representative and ask that they co-sponsor Rep. Stephens’ bill. By supporting this measure, they could make real progress in protecting Pennsylvanians.
(Faraguna is a founding member of Susquehanna Valley Progress.)