AILSA CHANG, HOST:
In the wake of the mass shootings in Uvalde and Buffalo, red flag laws are being cited as a way to cut down on gun deaths in the U.S. These are laws that allow the removal of guns when there is a risk of violence. They're on the books in 19 states. NPR's Martin Kaste talked to researchers investigating whether they work.
MARTIN KASTE, BYLINE: These are sometimes called extreme risk protection orders, and the idea is to temporarily take guns away from people identified as a risk to others or to themselves. And when it comes to self-harm, the studies show that they work. Garen Wintemute is director of the Violence Prevention Research Program at UC Davis Health. And he says for every 10 to 20 red flag orders that are issued, you reduce the total number of suicides by one.
GAREN WINTEMUTE: As a clinician thinking about an intervention, that's really effective.
KASTE: But when it comes to preventing mass shootings, the numbers aren't so clear. And that's because mass shootings are statistically more rare than suicides, says April Zeoli, who studies the effect of gun laws.
APRIL ZEOLI: So being able to say this year you didn't have any mass shootings, and that's because of extreme risk protection orders is difficult because you may not have had any anyway.
KASTE: Still, researchers are trying to get a handle on this. Zeoli is collecting data on outcomes in six of the red flag states. And one thing she can already say is that the laws are used unevenly.
ZEOLI: Some states just out of the gate had quite a lot of extreme risk protection order petitions filed. Florida is an example of that.
KASTE: She thinks that's because Florida passed its red flag law in the wake of the school shooting in Parkland, and people were more aware of it. Another factor is who gets to petition for the orders. Early versions of the laws limited that to police, but more recently, states have added family members to the list and even unrelated people living in the gun owner's household. There's also the question of whether the local criminal justice system is prepared for this process.
KIM WYATT: In the very beginning, we had law enforcement showing up, I remember, at, like, a district court and did not have any luck trying to figure out how to do it.
KASTE: Kim Wyatt is with the county prosecutor's office in Seattle, where she's part of an interagency unit that follows up on gun orders. She says getting prosecutors, courts and police working together has led to the recovery of about 200 firearms a year under the state's five-year-old red flag law.
WYATT: You need people to figure out the process of how you do the actual petition? What is the process to get it to the court? And then really to focus legal advisors or prosecutors that can guide on the enforcement part, too.
KASTE: There is, of course, a fear that red flags might be abused, that, say, a vengeful ex-spouse might lie to get someone's gun taken away. In a paper that looks at how the law works in Oregon, researcher April Zeoli says she did not find a pattern of that. She says more than 90% of the petitions ended up being approved by judges.
ZEOLI: If the respondent is filing it in a vengeful way and there is no evidence, then the judge can charge them with a crime.
KASTE: Still, red flag laws are controversial. Gun rights groups call them a threat to the gun owner's right to due process. There's no such law in Texas, the site of the latest school massacre by a troubled 18-year-old. And given this reality, Aaron Kivisto says it's important to keep other tools in mind.
AARON KIVISTO: Legislative means aren't the only means to help reduce people's risk.
KASTE: Kivisto is a psychologist at the University of Indianapolis who's followed the evolution of red flag laws. He says the data we have so far show the importance of intervention, even if it's informal.
KIVISTO: You know, family members or close friends in the community who might store the gun during a time of crisis - you know, it's - law enforcement doesn't need to be involved in every case to have the same general outcome of separating somebody from a firearm.
KASTE: Martin Kaste, NPR News.
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