Are Red Flag Laws Better Suited To Prevent Suicides?

While red flag gun laws, or extreme risk laws, have long been underutilized, the regulations have received increased traction in the 19 states, plus Washington, D.C., that currently have them on the books. 

Following the racist mass shooting in Buffalo, state lawmakers made legislative changes to New York’s red flag law in May. Connecticut revamped its own red flag law in June. However, the updates have thus far primarily targeted suicide prevention.  

Connecticut’s new law allows family or household members or medical professionals to apply to courts for a risk protection order investigation if “they have a good faith belief that someone poses a risk of imminent personal injury to himself, herself, or another person.” 

Between the day Connecticut’s updated law went into effect in June and early November, 418 risk protection warrants were approved by state judges, according to data obtained by the CT Mirror. 

“I would say probably in excess of 90% of the orders are suicide threats where a person is saying they are going to harm themselves,” Neil Dryfe, a police chief in Connecticut who is president of the Connecticut Police Chiefs Association, told the CT Mirror. 

With the success of Connecticut’s revised law, other red flag states could be attracted to make similar changes.

Warren Eller, an Associate Professor in John Jay College’s Political Science Department, said red flag laws are generally effective “at the margins,” but can be “more effective with suicides than other places.” 

After the attack on a Colorado LGBTQ nightclub in November, state lawmakers renewed discussions about red flag laws, which some said could have prevented the tragedy from occurring after arrest records of the gunman Anderson Lee Aldrich, 22, were released. 

The records showed that Aldrich had made a previous bomb threat and wanted to be “the next mass killer,” according to the records obtained by KKTV 11 News.

But the case was sealed and there were no formal charges, hurdles that show why red flag laws by design are potentially more effective at preventing suicide than other tragedies, according to Eller. 

Eller said in criminal cases like this, most plead down, or like in Aldrich’s case, have their record sealed, which can block a red flag law from effectively preventing acts of violence targeting other people . 

According to the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, individuals who die by suicide are likelier to live in homes with guns.

In addition, a 2007 study from the Harvard School of Public Health found suicides were almost twice as high in 15 high-gun states compared to the six states with the lowest number of guns, even though non-firearm suicides were about equal.  

According to UC Davis Health, of the nearly 40,000 deaths from firearms in the U.S. in 2019, 60 percent were suicides. In 2019, just under 24,000 people in the U.S. died by firearm suicide. Guns were used in approximately half of the suicides. 

Despite what red flag laws can do to prevent suicides and other tragedies, it’s not enough, according to Eller.

“It’s one tool in what has to be a pretty elaborate toolkit,” Eller said. 

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