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The Right Way to Think About ‘Red Flag’ Laws

They’re not about predicting future criminals.
June 6, 2022
The Right Way to Think About ‘Red Flag’ Laws

[On the June 3, 2022 episode of The Bulwark’s “Beg to Differ” podcast, David French explained the rationale behind “red flag” laws.]

Mona Charen: David, I’m for “red flag” laws, too. But I want to press you a little bit on this topic, because when you look back retrospectively at the shooters, you say: Oh, look, I mean, they came to the attention of public health authorities, they said all these things that were inflammatory or threatening. . . . Wow, how could anybody have missed it? But how many people say all those things and then do not do anything? And so, I just wonder whether we are overstating our capacity to predict who’s going to be violent, to identify them, to know exactly which warning signs to pay attention to, and so forth.

David French: . . . I think one of the issues with red flag laws is education: Do people even know they exist? . . . You can’t even use a law that you don’t know exists.

Another one is: Under what circumstance is it granted? And I think it’s a mistake to say: It is granted under the circumstance where we’re predicting a mass shooting. It is better to say: It is granted under the circumstance where someone has indicated that they might be a threat to themselves or others. So, it’s not that you are trying to predict—a pre-crime sort of analysis. It is instead rooted in certain kinds of conduct and behavior—that maybe a hundred people do this, and only one of them would go on to attempt a mass shooting. . . .

But of that hundred, . . . [all of them] have indicated by their behavior that this is not the kind of person who needs to be possessing a weapon. So, I think that the real key is not to say: Okay, the red flag law is predicting who’s going to be a mass shooter. Instead, the red flag law is identifying who is indicating that they’re a threat to themselves and others. And so, it has a lot of spillover effect—for domestic violence, for example; it has a spillover effect for suicide; it has a spillover effect even for common street crime, in some ways.

We can’t think of it as: This is the legal mechanism that predicts a mass shooter and takes a gun away from him. What you say is: This is a legal measure that identifies people exhibiting behavior that disqualifies them from gun ownership.

Florida passed a red flag law after the Parkland shooting and also raised the age limit for purchasing a rifle to 21. And they’ve issued, I think, close to 8,000 red flag orders; I think about 2,800 are in effect right now. That doesn’t mean that there’s 2,800 future school shooters that have been stopped. It means there’s 2,800 people who, by their behavior, have indicated that it’s an unacceptable risk to themselves and the community that they own a gun.

David French

David French, a senior editor at the Dispatch and former senior writer for National Review, is the author, most recently, of Divided We Fall: America’s Secession Threat and How to Restore Our Nation (St. Martin’s, 2020). He writes the “Third Rail” newsletter for the Atlantic.