Strong majorities of Americans from across the political spectrum support laws that allow family members or law enforcement to petition a judge to temporarily remove guns from a person who is seen to be a risk to themselves or others, according to a new APM Research Lab/Guns & America/Call To Mind survey.
These laws, often called extreme risk protection order laws, or red flag laws, have received renewed attention after 31 people were killed during mass shootings in El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio. Variations of these red flag laws are in place in 17 states and the District of Columbia.
Since the mass shootings, President Trump and some congressional Republicans have signaled support for federal red flag legislation, though next steps in Congress are unclear at this point.
Overall, 77 percent of Americans surveyed support family-initiated ERPOs, and 70 percent support them when initiated by law enforcement, according to the survey, which was conducted before the recent Texas and Ohio shootings. There is broad support among Republicans and gun owners for these types of laws, the poll found. Two-thirds of Republicans and 60 percent of gun owners support allowing police to seek the court orders; higher percentages — 70 percent of Republicans and 67 percent of gun owners — support allowing family members to seek them.
There is broad support among men and women, but there is a gender gap — with more women in favor of red flag laws than men. There are also regional differences, with a smaller percentage in the West (though still a majority) supportive of these laws. Support for the laws also increases the higher the level of educational attainment.
A topic of compromise
Experts describe a few reasons that a variety of people would support ERPO laws, even some who might generally be against gun control. Cassandra Crifasi, deputy director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research, points to the "temporary component." This means that once the temporary order expires, the person is then able to ask the judge to return his or her weapons.
"I think the other piece is that it's not focused on all gun owners. It's focused on gun owners who are exhibiting risky behaviors," Crifasi said. "I think we can reasonably agree that someone who is posting online about committing a mass shooting or someone who is sharing with a family member or a friend that they're thinking about harming themselves, that's someone that we would want to separate from firearms."
Amy Swearer, a senior legal policy analyst at the conservative-leaning Heritage Foundation, describes ERPO laws as a type of "intermediate measure." Data from Connecticut, a state that has had one of these laws since 1999, show that it has been used to remove firearms in all kinds of situations: violent threats against school officials, co-workers, wives, girlfriends and children and, especially, cases of possible suicide.
"These individuals, whether they haven't committed a crime yet or they haven't quite gotten within the radar of the mental health system ... they're still able to legally purchase and possess firearms," Swearer explained. "So, these laws give another avenue of intervening in those instances before these people act on those signs of dangerousness."
Despite support, opposition remains
Roughly 1 in 7 respondents "strongly oppose" red flag laws, according to the survey results. That's higher among gun owners: 24 percent percent of gun owners "strongly oppose" police-initiated ERPOs, and 20 percent "strongly oppose" family-initiated ERPOs.
Broadened to include respondents who "somewhat oppose" red flag laws, 27 percent of respondents overall oppose police-initiated ERPOs, while 21 percent oppose family-initiated ones.
Respondents living in Southern and Western states reported the highest levels of opposition to ERPO laws.
Some opposition is likely born out of the general rhetoric around the gun debate related to "serious distrust" and "seizing guns," Swearer explained. One Colorado-based gun rights group, for instance, refers to the state's recently passed red flag law as a "Gun Confiscation Scheme." Local sheriffs have indicated they'll refuse to enforce it once it goes into effect in 2020, saying the law violates the Second Amendment and due process and doesn't have a mental health care component.
In a February Facebook post, when the bill that led to the law was being considered, Colorado-based Rocky Mountain Gun Owners urged its supporters to attend a Colorado House Judiciary Committee hearing on the state's bill.
"Now, there are legitimate underlying fears," Swearer said, "in the sense that if these laws are not properly narrowed, that if they're not using specific-enough language, that if they're not being couched in appropriate measures of due process, that it can open the door for a lot of abuse."
Support may not translate into legislative action
Momentum for federal red flag legislation is building in Washington, D.C. The Democratic-controlled House Judiciary Committee announced that in September it will take up H.R. 1236, the Extreme Risk Protection Order Act of 2019. Trump has reportedly been in talks with senators about potential gun control legislation and assisting states with implementing their own ERPO laws. Gun violence prevention activists, in partnership with powerful groups like Everytown for Gun Safety, recently protested in cities across the U.S. to pressure senators to pass legislation for measures such as universal background checks and extreme risk protection orders.
"For a very long time, many elected officials have been responsive to single-issue voters on guns, and those single-issue voters have been people on the side of expanding gun rights or protecting perceived protection of gun rights," Johns Hopkins' Crifasi said. "There has not been the same push of single-issue voters on the side of gun safety. I think that's starting to change."
Republican Sens. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Marco Rubio of Florida have pushed for a federal red flag law, but Democrats also want universal background check legislation to pass along with it. Chuck Schumer, the Democratic Senate minority leader, said he wants the two paired and will not support a stand-alone bill for just red flag legislation.
He said in a statement this month that passing a "tepid version" of a red flag bill "would be an ineffective cop-out."
He noted, "We Democrats are not going to settle for half-measures so Republicans can feel better and try to push the issue of gun violence off to the side. Democrats in the Senate will seek to require that any ERPO bill that comes to the floor is accompanied by a vote on the House-passed universal background checks legislation."
It has been proved before that public support does not always translate into legislative action. In the aftermath of the Parkland, Fla., school shooting in 2018, for example, Trump encouraged states to pass their own ERPO laws, as part of a school safety plan, but there was no federal legislative push from the White House.
"We do not live in a direct democracy," said Harry Wilson, director of the Institute for Policy and Opinion Research at Roanoke College. "We don't live in a nation where issues are simply put to a vote and the majority rules."
Once people and lawmakers have an actual piece of legislation in front of them, support can weaken, Wilson noted, citing the pushback around the details of the Colorado law as an example.
District Attorney George Brauchler, a Republican who supported the 2018 version of the bill, withdrew his support in 2019 over what he described as "extreme provisions."
"When people start seeing the details of exactly how you're going to accomplish that goal, then support begins to fall off," Wilson said. "That's true certainly of gun control laws, but it's true in a variety of other areas as well."
Leigh Paterson is a reporter at KUNC in Colorado. This story was reported as part of Guns & America, a reporting collaboration of 10 public media stations covering the role of guns in American life. Find more here.
The survey of 1,009 Americans was conducted from July 16 to 21, 2019, by SSRS with live caller interviewers for APM Research Lab, a division of American Public Media that conducts research projects. The poll has a margin of error of +/- 3.42 percentage points.
The poll was conducted just weeks before mass shootings in El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio, and was done in partnership with Guns & America and Call To Mind, an initiative by American Public Media on mental health.
Copyright 2019 Guns and America. To see more, visit Guns and America.