WASHINGTON — Despite frequent mass shootings, Congress has not passed substantial gun violence legislation.
But a bipartisan proposal by Sens. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., and Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., is gaining momentum after weekend mass shootings in Texas and Ohio that left 31 people dead. The emerging plan would create a federal grant program to encourage states to adopt “red flag” laws to take guns away from people believed to be dangers to themselves or others.
Red flag laws have been adopted by 17 states, including New York, where a law is set to take effect Aug. 24.
Nebraska and Iowa do not have red flag laws, although Nebraska State Sen. Adam Morfeld of Lincoln introduced a bill to create extreme risk protection orders. The bill is stuck in committee.
The GOP-controlled U.S. Senate considered a bill similar to the new plan last year, but it never came up for a vote. Yet both parties express hope that this year will be different. President Donald Trump has signaled support for the plan.
“We must make sure that those judged to pose a grave risk to public safety do not have access to firearms and that if they do, those firearms can be taken through rapid due process,” Trump said this week.
Many mass shootings “involved individuals who showed signs of violent behavior that are either ignored or not followed up on,” said Graham, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee. “State red flag laws will provide the tools for law enforcement to do something about many of these situations before it’s too late.”
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In an interview Tuesday, Blumenthal said there’s “a growing wave of support on both sides of the aisle” for the red flag plan — more momentum in fact “than any other gun violence plan” being debated in Congress, including a proposal Blumenthal supports to require universal background checks for gun purchases.
In a letter Thursday to Congress, more than 200 mayors — including those of El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio, where last weekend’s mass shootings occurred — urged senators to return to the Capitol to vote on two House-passed bills expanding background checks for gun sales. Trump had threatened to veto the two bills but this week has expressed a new openness to considering expanding background checks.
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer said Wednesday that Democratic senators would demand a vote on background checks if Republicans want to vote on red flag laws.
Most of the state red flag laws are recent, having been approved since the February 2018 mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida.
How does a red flag law work?
In general, red flag or “extreme risk protection order” laws allow courts to issue temporary orders barring someone from possessing guns based on some showing of imminent danger or a risk of misuse.
State laws vary, but most stipulate that only specific people — usually family or household members — may petition a court for an extreme risk protection order against a person. In some cases, a preliminary order may be granted without the person being notified.
Such an order is typically short-lasting, ranging from a few days to about three weeks. Once the person who is alleged to pose a risk has been given an opportunity to respond, a more permanent order may be granted, typically for up to a year. Before an order can be entered, some factual showing must be made that the subject poses a risk of using a firearm to harm themselves or others.
What is the federal proposal?
Graham and Blumenthal are still developing the plan. The similar bill proposed last year by Florida Sens. Marco Rubio and Bill Nelson would essentially pay states to implement red flag laws.
Blumenthal said the new proposal would set a national standard that states must meet to be eligible for federal grants. He compared it to federal highway laws that make grants dependent on states setting speed limits or drunken-driving standards.
How much would it cost?
Costs are still being worked out, but whatever the amount, “it’s a small fraction of the losses — both monetary and in the loss of life — as a result of gun violence,” Blumenthal said.
Who supports the plan?
Almost all Senate Democrats support red flag laws, along with a growing number of Republicans, including Pennsylvania’s Pat Toomey, Indiana’s Mike Braun and Iowa’s Chuck Grassley. South Dakota Sen. John Thune, the second-highest-ranking Senate Republican, told the Argus Leader in Sioux Falls that he’s “confident Congress will be able to find common ground on the so-called ‘red flag’ issue.”
Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, said Tuesday that he is open to the proposal, noting that the alleged shooter in Dayton kept a “hit list” of people he wanted to target in high school. “Clearly people knew something was wrong with this guy, and yet nobody went to the proper authorities or the proper authorities didn’t respond,” he said.
A red flag law may “bridge this issue of the guns and the mental health issue, where you identify somebody who has a mental health history that might not be formally diagnosed but that people know about,” he said.
What about Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell?
The Kentucky Republican said Thursday that he wants Congress to consider legislation to expand federal background checks and other gun violence measures when lawmakers return in the fall.
“Background checks and red flags will probably lead the discussion,” he said.
Congress passed a modest measure last year to shore up the federal background check system and approved a grant program to prevent school violence — signs that action on gun violence is possible, McConnell said.
What about the NRA?
A National Rifle Association spokeswoman declined to comment on red flag laws.
World-Herald staff writer Martha Stoddard contributed to this report.