In the aftermath of the Robb Elementary School shooting in Uvalde, Texas, federal lawmakers passed a bipartisan bill that aims to reduce gun violence in America.
To pass the historic piece of legislation, the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act, lawmakers had to compromise on both sides of the aisle. For Republicans, it meant embracing red flag or extreme-risk programs. Such programs allow authorities or family members in some states to ask courts to temporarily take away guns from a person who’s believed to be a danger to themselves or others. The gun owner then has a court hearing within a short timeframe to try to get their guns back. The removal can last up to a year in most states.
The idea has strong popular support. In a WRAL News Poll in June, 87% of respondents favored passing a red flag law in this state. Nineteen other states and the District of Columbia have passed them, but North Carolina is not one of them.
North Carolina Republican U.S. Sen. Thom Tillis, who is No. 4 on a list of the NRA’s most-funded politicians compiled by the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, sat on the committee that drafted the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act. He said red flag laws are one of the four pillars of the legislation.
“Some people call it red flag bills,” Tillis said. “I think it’s something that will provide more tools for law enforcement and the community to speak up so that we can potentially end or at least substantially decrease these incidents of mass violence.”
Tillis has collected $4,429,333 from the NRA during his political career, according to the Brady Campaign.
Tillis, outgoing North Carolina Republican U.S. Sen. Richard Burr and 13 other Republican U.S. senators voted to pass the bill. Burr is No. 2 on the Brady Campaign’s most-funded list at $6,987,380.
Several weeks ago, Twitter users and people on the internet demonized people like Tillis and Burr for supporting gun rights and accepting donations from the NRA after the Uvalde shooting on May 24. Critics insinuated or outright stated that the senators were holding up legislation for personal gain and that they were being bought.
The new federal legislation offers incentives – money – to any state that adopts red flag laws right now. However, North Carolina is unlikely to change its stance on the issue. In June, WRAL News reported that state Republicans won’t even discuss the possibility.
State Rep. Marcia Morey, D-Durham, has filed red flag bills for six years. They’ve never even gotten a hearing. Morey told WRAL News that she tried to meet with House Speaker Tim Moore after the Uvalde school shooting to talk about it, but he wouldn’t even discuss it.
Asked about it, Tim Moore told WRAL News, “The issue is, a lot of the legislation is being pushed by those on the political left is really just gun control and it would simply take guns away from law-abiding citizens.”
Moore said the political left is pushing for gun control legislation, which is true. However, both of North Carolina’s U.S. senators who are backed by the NRA also voted for the federal bill. Tillis helped draft it.
Moore left that part out of his response to WRAL News. He also said red flag laws would “take guns away from law-abiding citizens,” something that is possible.
Each state’s red flag laws are a bit different, but here is generally how they work:
1. Police can temporarily take a weapon without a warrant from someone who is deemed dangerous.
For example, if someone is threatening to hurt themselves or if a parent found their troubled kid’s plans for a mass shooting, police could show up and immediately take their guns without a hearing and keep them for about two weeks.
2. During the two-week period, a prosecutor can go before a judge to justify the seizure and get an order to hold the guns longer, and prevent the person from getting another gun for about a year.
The process raises two concerns:
1. Police could infringe on a person’s “right to bear arms” without a court hearing.
This is true. If you’re thinking that sounds unconstitutional, here’s how the Center for Firearms Law at Duke University Executive Director Jake Charles explained it: “When there is an emergency, and it’s narrowly confined to emergency situations, then the constitution allows that a hearing can be delayed,” Charles said.” One context in which this happens routinely is in removing kids from their parents’ custody.
“That can happen in an emergency basis when there are credible allegations of abuse, and then the hearing is held later, and courts have upheld those as consistent with due process.”
2. The second concern is even after a hearing, the government can keep guns from a person who is deemed “dangerous,” which is pretty subjective.
First, someone close to the person would have to find them dangerous and call police. Then, police would have to find them dangerous and take the guns. Then, a prosecutor would have to find them dangerous enough to pursue the case on short notice. And finally, a judge would hear from both sides and still rule that the person was too dangerous to have a gun.
The existing law protects gun owners, but it also leaves cracks for people to fall through.
The Highland Park shooter had a past littered with “red flags.”
In 2019, records show he threatened himself and his family and was labeled a “clear and present danger,” and police confiscated several weapons from his house.
For one reason or another, we’re still waiting for details – police and the family didn’t pursue the “red flag order” and a judge never made it official, so he bought a new gun and opened fire on a parade of families.
While Illinois’ red flag law took effect on Jan. 1, 2019, it isn’t clear who knew about the gunman’s behavior and when.
There are many headlines like this one from The Guardian blaming a “gun law loophole that let the suspect slip through.” Others would call it “due process,” and argue it’s very difficult to tell the future and rely on laws that punish people for crimes we “think” they will commit.
When someone slips through the cracks, some people point and say – “look, red flag laws don’t work.” Sometimes, they follow that up by saying, we should make red flag laws stronger or not have them at all.
The fact is there’s no magic legislation that will stop these shootings. In fact, when it comes to red flag laws, when they do work and stop a tragedy, we’ll never really know, will we?
In Depth With Dan
Dan Haggerty is a reporter and anchor for WRAL. He’s won four regional Emmy awards for his anchoring and reporting in in Fort Myers, Florida; Cleveland; San Diego; Dallas; Portland, Oregon and Raleigh, North Carolina. He is proud to call the Triangle home.
Anyone who has an idea for In Depth with Dan can email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.