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Gun Policy

The NRA’s Public Support for Red Flag Laws Isn’t Felt in Many State Capitols

21 legislatures are considering bills that would enable law enforcement to remove guns from individuals deemed a risk to themselves or others.

It’s crunch time for a slew of states considering “red flag” laws that give police a way to remove guns from dangerous people before they can use their weapons to shoot themselves or others.

In Maryland, New Jersey, New York, and Vermont — four of the 21 states with pending red flag bills — legislation creating such a law has cleared at least one chamber of the state legislature.

Eight other states weighing similar bills conclude their regular legislative sessions in April. The measures have gained bipartisan backing following the Parkland, Florida, school shooting. In a reversal, the National Rifle Association pronounced its support. The next four weeks will show whether the gun group will join reform advocates in pushing more red flag bills into law, or whether the momentum that last month swept one onto the books in Florida was short-lived.

Red flag laws — which create legal vehicles known more formally as Extreme Risk Protection Orders (ERPOs) or Gun Violence Restraining Orders (GVROs) — have existed since 1999 and are now in place in six states. While the perpetrator of the February massacre was well known to peers, school staff, and local police as a dangerous individual, they all lacked a legal tool for disarming him. Red flag laws provide that tool.

Status of State ‘Red Flag’ Laws

Source: Giffords Law Center; state legislatures. Interactive: Daniel Nass.

Here’s where things stand in the eight states — Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Maryland, and Tennessee — that have until the end of April to pass red flag bills in the course of the regular legislative year.

  • In Arizona, Maryland, and Tennessee, red flag bills have met opposition from the NRA. In Arizona and Maryland, the gun group’s political arm, the NRA-ILA, has live webpages urging members to contact representatives and take action now against the proposals. In a post from February 2017, the NRA stated its opposition to the Tennessee legislation, but has not commented since Parkland.
  • In Alabama, the NRA has not made a statement opposing the legislation. But no Republicans showed up to a committee hearing to consider that state’s GVRO proposal, stalling the bill for lack of a quorum.
  • The Alaska legislation has bipartisan support. Diana Rhoades, an aide to the bill’s sponsor, Representative Geran Tarr, said in an email that the NRA had met with her office to say they would not oppose that bill. Republicans have offered amendments to weaken the legislation by eliminating a procedure that allows an order to move forward without the gun owner being present, and requiring a psychological evaluation before guns can be seized.
  • Both the House and Senate sponsors of the Arizona proposals believe their bills are effectively dead. “It does not have bipartisan support,” wrote State Senator Katie Hobbs, a Democrat, in an email. “I presented an opportunity for Republicans to help revive it with a discharge petition and none of them would support it.” Democratic Representative Randall Friese said in a phone interview that: “The NRA doesn’t have to take a strong public stance on bills like this. They know they likely won’t move forward anyway.” 
  • Doug Ducey, the governor of Arizona, has called for the passage of his own similar law, which he calls a “STOP” order, though he has not produced actual legislation.
  • The Iowa proposal is “dead on the vine,” said sponsor Bruce Hunter, a House Democrat. The bill never received a hearing, and when Hunter tried to add it as an amendment to other bills, it was ruled not germane. No Republicans expressed their support for the bill, he said. Before the Parkland shooting, Hunter said he received NRA emails saying the group opposed the bill.
  • In Kansas, State Senator Barbara Bollier believes that local affiliates of the NRA effectively killed her bill, though it is technically still active. The Kansas State Rifle Association also singled her out for being anti-gun when she attended the student marches in Washington, D.C., this past weekend in its email newsletter. “Even though the national NRA is standing in support of red flag bills, the local Kansas rifle association is not,” she said. Update: Kansas’s state session has ended without passing red flag legislation.
  • Delegate Geraldine Valentino-Smith, the lead sponsor of Maryland’s bill, said that the NRA did not get involved until the legislation passed the House. She said that representatives for the gun group have started to give input to legislators as the Senate prepares to vote. “Whether [the NRA] support the bill or not has yet to be seen,” she said. Update: Red flag legislation has passed both Maryland state houses and is awaiting the governor’s signature.
  • There has been little movement on Kentucky’s bill since it was introduced in the House on February 27 and referred to the Judiciary Committee two days later.
  • On March 28, Tennessee’s bill was placed on the calendars of the state House’s Civil Justice Subcommittee and the Senate Judiciary Committee after sitting idle for almost a year in both chambers.

In their most common form, protection orders empower law enforcement, and often family members, to petition a court to remove firearms from an individual who shows signs of violent behavior or mental illness. Several of the proposals reviewed by The Trace, including those in New Jersey, Maryland, and Kentucky, would extend the ability to petition a court to any person with cause.

The NRA has historically opposed red flag laws. Last year, it urged Oregonians to contact their governor to veto the state’s current risk protection law. The year before that, the gun group told Washington residents to vote no on a ballot initiative that created “so-called ‘Extreme Risk Protection Orders’ (ERPO).” But the organization has publicly reversed its position since Parkland.

Chris Cox, the NRA’s top lobbyist, announced through the group’s YouTube channel that Congress should incentivize states to adopt red flag laws. “These proposals can be done right now,” he said in the video. “While they won’t solve everything, they will help lead to a broader discussion on how to address a culture of violence in America.” Despite Cox’s pronouncement, however, the NRA-ILA continues to oppose red flag legislation at the state level.

In Connecticut, police recently used their authority to disarm a man who was openly contemplating suicide.

The new Florida measure was used to temporarily ban a college student from owning guns or ammunition after he made violent comments involving mass shootings online. The order was lifted within two weeks by circuit judge Bob LeBlanc, the Orlando Sentinel reported. “I don’t disagree with the issuing of the initial temporary injunction,” LeBlanc said. “I think that’s exactly what the statute provides for.”