Today columns|Opeds|Boston.com blog|Media|Other Publications|
New research shows red flag gun laws save lives, but they stop suicides, not
James Alan Fox, Opinion columnist
Published 7:00 a.m. ET June 5, 2018
These laws save lives. When it comes to extreme risk protection orders,
both red and blue states on board but they're not the whole answer.
Four mass shootings since last October, each with double-digit death tolls,
has us all searching for solutions. Although the venues were varied two high
schools, a Texas church and an open-air music festival the common
denominator to these massacres is, of course, the use of firearms and an
ample supply of ammunition.
In response, we hear the usual
conflicting proposals: more gun restrictions or simply more guns to ward off
attackers. The debate gets louder and increasingly contentious after each
episode of senseless carnage. There is, however, one goal that apparently
most can support, regardless of position on the gun-control/gun-rights
continuum: taking firearms away from those who are considered dangerous to
themselves or others.
Before February's school shooting in Parkland,
Fla., six states had extreme risk laws (or "red flag laws," as they are
often called in public discourse). Since then, given the plethora of signs
of trouble exhibited by the gunman Nikolas Cruz, as many as 32 states have
either passed or are considering similar measures, according to the
Educational Fund to Stop Gun Violence.
The list of possibles includes
the especially gun-friendly state of Texas, which suffered a mass shooting
last month even though the gunman didn't quite seem the kind of dangerous
individual for whom these statures are designed. Even the NRA, ever wary of
the slippery slope, sees it reasonable to stand on solid ground in backing
A comprehensive new study found that long-standing
statutes in Indiana and Connecticut have resulted in substantial reductions
in suicide compared with what would have been expected based on trends in
other states. According to lead author Aaron Kivisto, a University of
Indianapolis professor of clinical psychology, there were 7.5% fewer
suicides in Indiana over the decade following the law's passage in 2005.
Connecticut's 1999 statute was associated initially with a 1.6% reduction in
firearm suicides, but then a 13.7% reduction after the Virginia Tech
massacre when enforcement was greatly enhanced.
The good news, then,
is that these laws have indeed saved lives, but not necessarily the lives
for which they were intended. Although undeniably worthwhile, it is notable
that legislation in both states was prompted by high-profile homicides in
Indiana the fatal shooting of a police officer and in Connecticut the
massacre of four employees at the state lottery headquarters. And, of
course, the encouraging groundswell of support we are witnessing now around
the country is the direct result of a mass killing.
research has surfaced to assess the impact of risk-based firearm seizure
laws in preventing homicide, much less mass murder. It doesn't necessarily
follow that the same effects will translate to gun assaults. In fact, there
is the worrisome potential for adverse consequences.
legislation two decades ago prohibiting domestic abusers from legally
purchasing a firearm, there remain far too many instances of volatile
relationships that end with a bullet.
In terms of mass killings,
moreover, half involve a bloodletting of blood relatives. Sadly, domestic
violence has sometimes escalated following the issuance of a restraining
order. Similarly, an attempt by a frightened party to have guns taken from
their threatening spouse or irrational child can precipitate the very
violent act that confiscation is designed to prevent.
crimes that generate the most passion for gun control are the least likely
to be impacted. Mass killers are nothing if not determined. Should their
guns be confiscated, they can find ways to acquire another. Or, as we have
seen in recent years, they can always get behind the wheel of a vehicle or
construct a homemade bomb to inflict massive suffering through other means.
In addition, the warning signs of mass murder are generally not so
obvious as in the Cruz case, not until after the damage has been done, that
is, when hindsight is 20/20.
Nonetheless, if attempts to avert the most
extreme acts of murder can help reduce the types of violence that don't make
headlines, then it is well worth the effort.
James Alan Fox is the Lipman
Professor of Criminology, Law and Public Policy at Northeastern University
and a member of the USA TODAY Board of Contributors. He is co-author of
Extreme Killing: Understanding Serial and Mass Murder. Follow him on