Would red flag gun laws make Minnesota safer? Experts say more research needed

A gathering outside of the state capitol building.
Gov. Tim Walz speaks at a Moms Demand Action rally outside the Minnesota State Capitol on April 25.
Matthew Alvarez | MPR News

Updated: 1:00 p.m.

Gov. Tim Walz and many of his fellow Democrats in the Legislature are pushing for a new law that would allow judges to temporarily take guns away from people who pose a risk to themselves or others.

Supporters say it's common sense to have a path to petition the court system to temporarily take away firearms from people deemed likely to hurt themselves or others.

“This is a multifaceted problem with multifaceted solutions,” said Maggiy Emery, who leads Protect Minnesota, a coalition of several groups working to prevent gun violence.

“There's never going to be one policy that ends all gun deaths in Minnesota in one fell swoop,” Emery said. “But I think anything that we can do to save any life, even if this policy saves only one life next year, it's still going to be worth it.”

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Emery and other supporters are convinced extreme risk protection orders, commonly called a red flag law, would help reduce gun deaths, especially deaths by suicide.

“Those deaths make up the vast majority of lives that we lose to gun violence,” Emery said.

Opponents say taking a person’s firearms because they might use them for harm is unconstitutional. Rob Doar, the senior vice president of the Minnesota Gun Owners Caucus, also disputed the claim red flag laws reduce deaths by suicide.

“Not a single state that's passed red flag laws has seen a reduction in suicide rate, which is often a claim that's been made,” Doar said.

A person speaks during a rally
Rob Doar, vice president and political director of the Minnesota Gun Owners Caucus speaks during a freedom rally at the Capitol Rotunda in St. Paul on April 4.
Kerem Yücel | MPR News

Early research may suggest the laws are having an effect. Jennifer Paruk at Michigan State University's School of Criminal Justice studies extreme risk protection orders, known as ERPOs.

“Researchers have found that ERPOs are being used when there is a risk of suicide, and there is a small body of evidence to suggest that ERPOs may reduce firearm suicide,” Paruk said. “However, more research is definitely needed.”

Paruk said there is also early evidence extreme risk protection orders could help prevent mass shootings.

She and other researchers examined circumstances behind all such orders filed in a half dozen states.

“We found that almost 10 percent of ERPOs are being filed after mass shooting threats,” Paruk said. “Mass shooters sometimes tell someone about their plans, giving an opportunity for intervention.”

Still, law enforcement in Minnesota is divided on extreme risk protection orders.

The Minnesota Sheriffs’ Association, which represents elected sheriffs from the state’s 87 counties, is neutral on the proposal.

a group of lawmakers
A divided house responds to Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz's plans for a gun control bill during the State of the State address on April 19 in the house chambers of the Minnesota State Capitol in St. Paul.
Aaron Lavinsky | AP

“We struggle with it,” said Tim Leslie, a lobbyist for the group, adding, “I don't necessarily disagree with some of the logic. But again, I'm representing 87 and 87 have different opinions.”

The Minnesota Association of Police Chiefs has backed passage of a red flag law for several years.

“If someone's in a mental health crisis then we should try to separate them from their firearms,” said Jeff Potts, who leads that organization. The 30-year law enforcement veteran buys the “common sense” argument for the orders.

While a major argument against red flag laws revolves around claims they are unconstitutional, Hamline University professor David Shultz said those claims are unfounded.

“It's either a dog whistle or some kind of urban myth. Or let's just be generous and say maybe a misunderstanding of the Constitution,” said Schultz.

Think of extreme risk protection orders, Schultz said, in the context of a restraining order or a civil commitment. Courts have upheld those moves, although the Supreme Court has never considered a red flag law.

A gathering outside of the state capitol building.
Gov. Tim Walz speaks at a Moms Demand Action rally outside the Minnesota State Capitol on April 25.
Matthew Alvarez | MPR News

Even without conclusive evidence that the laws are effective, states are moving forward. Nineteen states and the District of Columbia have passed red flag laws. Minnesota is among 13 other states considering them. 

Until recently Congress blocked federal funding for gun violence research. But that changed a few years ago.

Andrew Morral, who researches gun violence at the Rand Corporation, said numerous studies underway could help determine whether red flag laws are effective. 

“The federal government didn't fund research in a systematic way on these kinds of questions until 2019,” Morral said. “I do expect that we're going to be learning a lot more soon.”

Correction (May 2, 2023): This story has been updated to clarify that David Shultz is a professor at Hamline University.