How States Are Using Red Flag Laws to Try to Avert Mass Shootings

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The requests were granted. But the results of the search were not what the detective expected.

Nationally, more than 20,000 petitions for extreme risk protection orders were filed from 1999 to 2021, according to data collected by Everytown for Gun Safety, an advocacy group. A vast majority of those petitions — more than 18,600 — were filed after the 2018 massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, a Fort Lauderdale suburb.

Florida — a state controlled by Republicans, who have traditionally been loath to impose restrictions on gun ownership — enacted its red flag law in response to that shooting. Its courts handled more than 8,100 petitions for risk protection orders from 2018 to 2021, according to Everytown.

In Fort Lauderdale, the memory of Parkland is strong.

Detective Chris Carita, who has a master’s degree in public health from Johns Hopkins, trains fellow officers in how to use the state’s red flag law. On a recent Wednesday, he could be found in a bare-bones classroom with seven new officers.

“Law enforcement is a gun culture; the thought of taking someone’s firearms away may not sit well with us, right?” he told them. “That really is a problem for some of us, and so it’s important to understand the legal framework for these laws so that you can be comfortable and understand why it’s being used and how it’s being used.”

There are roughly 17,500 state and local law enforcement agencies in the United States; about 85 percent of them have fewer than 50 full-time officers. Many are unable to provide the kind of training available in Fort Lauderdale, said Chuck Wexler, the executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum, a nonprofit in Washington.

Even in bigger police departments, getting officers accustomed to using the orders can be a challenge. In Fairfax County, Va., Chief Kevin Davis has assigned a single officer to manage all emergency substantial risk orders, as they are called in that state. His department obtained 11 orders in 2020 and 26 in 2021. Last year, the number jumped to 80.

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