National polling has shown widespread support for laws that create a process to temporarily remove firearms from people deemed to be dangerous to themselves or others. Such a so-called “red flag” law is currently before the Utah Legislature, and it deserves to be openly and thoroughly debated and delivered to the floor for a vote by one or both chambers.
The proposed bill — HB209 — will meet resistance among gun rights interests, as did a similar measure last year that passed the House Judiciary Committee, but never made it to a vote on the House floor. This year, the measure should be scrupulously vetted as a way to help reduce a disturbingly high rate of suicide in Utah. A state-sponsored study last year by the Harvard School of Public Health shows firearms are used in half of suicide attempts in Utah, and in nearly 9 out of 10 of those cases, the result is fatal.
The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Stephen Handy, R-Layton, says two states that were early adopters of extreme risk laws — Connecticut and Indiana — have seen reductions in the number of suicides by firearm. There is also strong data in those states showing people who are subjected to risk orders receive behavior health treatment at a higher rate.
Gun rights advocates have voiced concerns that such laws may impede a person’s constitutional rights of due process. The National Rifle Association has advocated for implementation of red flag laws with the caveat they include protections against due process violations. At least 13 states have now passed extreme risk laws, with a variety of methodology for implementing confiscation orders.
The Utah law would set forth a process by which a family member or law enforcement entity may petition a court to have a person’s firearm taken following a detailed presentation of evidence of dangerous behavior. Where the laws have been implemented across the country, there are no cases to this point that have met with a successful constitutional challenge based on search and seizure protections.
Nevertheless, almost all firearms-related legislation immediately meets with organized opposition. Some influential gun rights interests believe any measure that smacks of controlling gun ownership will lead to a slow erosion of Second Amendment rights. It will not. Red flag laws proposed in several states last year never made it to a committee hearing, let alone a floor vote, as a result of such narrow and reactive opposition.41 comments on this story
Yet, public support for such legislation has grown, particularly in the wake of activism by student survivors of the mass shooting nearly a year ago at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida. In a Washington Post-ABC News poll after the shooting, 85 percent of respondents said they generally favored red flag laws. In Utah, the proposed risk order bill enjoys support from public health organizations concerned about the state’s disproportionately high rate of suicide among teenagers and young adults.
That concern alone is reason enough for HB209 to enjoy a comprehensive assessment by lawmakers. There is clear evidence that such a law will save lives. Reasoned debate on the bill should proceed in the widest public venue the Legislature can offer, and a reasoned approach should be adopted.