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How Red Flag Laws Can Prevent Shootings Like Thursday’s in Indianapolis

April 19, 2021

Following Thursday’s mass shooting at a FedEx facility in Indianapolis, news outlets have reported that the Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department seized a shotgun from the suspect in March of 2020, acting on evidence that he presented a risk to his own safety. 

Despite the seizure, however, the suspect was able to legally buy two semiautomatic assault rifles in July and September of 2020. Preliminary information suggests this followed a tragic missed opportunity to utilize Indiana’s red flag law a law designed to prevent tragedies like Thursday’s.

Under Indiana’s red flag law, law enforcement could have filed paperwork with a court that could have led to the issuance of an extreme risk order prohibiting the suspect from buying or having guns after seizing the suspect’s gun last March.

“For whatever reason,” the Times quoted IMPD Chief Randal Taylor as saying, “that never made it to the court.” According to the Marion County Prosecutor, the paperwork was never filed because the suspect’s family agreed to relinquish the gun that was seized and, despite the evidence that the suspect posed a threat, because prosecutors were concerned they couldn’t meet the legal standard for obtaining an extreme risk order under Indiana’s red flag law. 

Had law enforcement filed the appropriate paperwork with a state court, the court would have had to determine within 14 days — at a hearing — whether the shooter was a dangerous person under Indiana law. If the court granted the requested order, the suspect would have been prohibited from buying or having guns until he could have proved to the court that he was no longer a threat to himself or others. This would have prevented him from passing a background check.

While Indiana’s law could be strengthened, the fact that the shooter was able to buy a gun offers an urgent reminder of the need to utilize red flag laws when someone poses an extreme risk. Legislation has also been introduced in Congress to ensure more Americans have access to these lifesaving tools, and Congress should act quickly to pass it.

Red flag laws, also known as Extreme Risk laws, have already saved lives from coast to coast, including in Indiana. In Indiana, in the 10 years after the state passed its red flag law in 2005, the state’s firearm suicide rate decreased by 7.5 percent.

An Everytown original analysis of mass shootings from 2009 to 2018 revealed that in 54 percent of incidents the shooter exhibited warning signs that they posed a risk to themselves or others before the shooting.

Nineteen states and the District of Columbia have passed red flag laws, which have strong bipartisan support. Examples of the impact of these laws (with citations here)  include:

  • A study in California details 21 cases in which a Gun Violence Restraining Order, California’s name for an Extreme Risk order, was used in efforts to prevent mass shootings. This includes the case of a car-dealership employee who threatened to shoot his supervisor and other employees if he was fired. A manager at the dealership informed the police and a GVRO was obtained the following day. Five firearms were recovered through the order.
  • In Maryland, a 2018 Extreme Risk law has been invoked in at least four cases involving “significant threats” against schools, according to the leaders of the Maryland Sheriffs’ Association.
  • In Florida, an Extreme Risk law passed in 2018 has been invoked in multiple cases of potential school violence, including in the case of a student who was accused of stalking an ex-girlfriend and threatening to kill himself, and in another in which a potential school shooter said killing people would be “addicting.”
  • In Seattle, a coalition of city and county officials launched a regional firearms enforcement unit that supports, tracks, and enforces all firearm surrender orders issued within the county. In the unit’s first year, it recovered 200 firearms as a result of 48 ERPOs. According to the City Attorney’s Office, the use of ERPOs has been effective in temporarily preventing access to firearms by students who threatened violence against themselves, the school, and other students.

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