‘Red Flag’ Laws Require a Tricky Balance
It is easy to understand the bipartisan appeal of a policy that promises to reduce gun violence by targeting dangerous individuals instead of imposing broad limits that affect millions of law-abiding Americans. So it’s not surprising that the Senate gun control deal announced on Sunday includes federal grants aimed at encouraging states to pass and enforce “red flag” laws, which authorize courts to prohibit people from possessing firearms when they are deemed a threat to themselves or others.
However sensible that policy may seem, it suffers from two basic limitations that cannot be wished away by consensus-building rhetoric: Predicting violence is much harder than advocates of this approach are usually willing to admit, and trying to overcome that challenge by erring on the side of issuing red flag orders inevitably means that many innocent people will lose their Second Amendment rights, typically for a year and sometimes longer, even though they never would have used a gun to harm anyone.
The very concept of red flags assumes that experts can reliably distinguish between harmless oddballs and future murderers. But there is little basis for that assumption.
“The notion that we can identify mass killers before they act is, as yet, an epidemiologic fiction,” psychiatrist Richard Friedman noted in a 2019 New York Times essay. “Experienced psychiatrists fare no better than a roll of the dice at predicting violence.”
Even if certain “red flags” are common among mass shooters, almost none of the people who display those signs are bent on murderous violence. While “there may be pre-existing behavior markers that are specifiable,” a 2012 Defense Department study noted, those markers “are of low specificity and thus carry the baggage of an unavoidable false alarm rate.”
RAND Corporation researchers Rosanna Smart
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