‘Red flag’ gun bill used just six times last year
Advocates say law remains effective
WHEN GOV. CHARLIE BAKER signed the so-called “red flag” bill in July 2018, it was pitched as a way to save lives. Under the law, a family member or police department can file a petition to have a judge confiscate someone’s legally owned gun, after a hearing, if the person poses a danger to themselves or others.
But the law has rarely been used. In 2021, according to a report released Wednesday by the Trial Court, just six petitions were filed for what are called Extreme Risk Protective Orders. Five orders were granted at emergency hearings. Only two items were surrendered, according to the report.
That is the lowest annual number of petitions since the law went into effect in August 2018. There were 10 petitions filed in 2018, 19 in 2019, and nine in 2020. The petitions resulted in eight items surrendered in 2018, 12 in 2019, and eight in 2020.
Advocates say the low usage is not an indication that the law is useless, but that it may only be relevant in a small number of cases, and more public education is necessary.
But Zakarin added, “It could be more successful with more public awareness.”
The law was framed as a way to prevent people from committing suicide or homicide by taking away their weapon. The hope is that a reprieve will give the person time to seek help. California passed the nation’s first red flag law in 2014 and several states, including Massachusetts, followed suit.
Rep. Marjorie Decker, a Cambridge Democrat who was one of the bill’s lead sponsors, said the pandemic likely impacted the numbers because people are delaying all sorts of things. “I think people are trying to balance a hierarchy of needs from dealing with sickness, loss of job or income, dealing with housing insecurity, and dealing with overall panic and exhaustion of the pandemic over the last two years,” she said.
The Trial Court has continued to accept petitions and hold hearings on them throughout the pandemic, since they were considered emergency matters.
But Decker added that even if courts were hearing the petitions, access to the courts generally has still become more complex during COVID. “Access in almost every part of our lives feels harder and more complicated,” Decker said.
Rep. David Linsky, a Natick Democrat who sponsored the bill, said he never anticipated the law would be used frequently. Linsky said Massachusetts already had a state law requiring the police to seize a person’s weapons if a domestic violence restraining order is issued against them. The police are also trained to work with mental health professionals to convince people to voluntarily surrender their firearms if there is reason to believe the person poses a danger.
“I wanted it to be available, but I also knew that this was filling in a small gap in otherwise very effective gun laws in Massachusetts,” Linsky said.
Zoe Grover, executive director of Stop Handgun Violence, a Boston-based gun violence prevention group, said her organization has been surprised since the law’s passage at how few people are filing petitions. “It is a question in our minds of what we need to do to make sure that everyone who needs this is getting access to it,” Grover said.Her organization and Zakarin’s worked together several months ago to create a website to increase awareness of the law. The advocates have been reaching out to medical providers and social workers to make sure they are familiar with the law, so they can counsel families. “We want to make sure there aren’t barriers in any place,” Grover said.
But for Jim Wallace, executive director of Gun Owners Action League, a gun rights lobbying group, the low numbers confirm what he has been saying since the bill was debated. Wallace said taking someone’s gun away is not the same as providing them with mental health treatment to prevent suicides. “This whole thing’s been a complete wasted effort,” Wallace said.