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Study Shows Red Flag Laws Might Help Prevent Violence

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

The recent mass shootings across the country have renewed debate about so-called red flag laws. These are statutes that allow family members or law enforcement officers to ask the judge to remove guns from a person who appears to be at risk to him or herself or to others. A new study presents evidence that such laws may in fact work. The study comes from the non-partisan Violence Prevention Research Program at the University of California, Davis. It zeroed in on how California's red flag law has been used since it took effect in 2016. And the lead author of the study is Garen Wintemute. He's an ER doctor, and he joins me now to talk about the study's findings. Welcome.

GAREN WINTEMUTE: Thanks for having me.

CHANG: So, Garen, can you just break down this study for us? What exactly were you testing to measure whether California's red flag law was successful?

WINTEMUTE: What we have is a series of cases. We are doing a broad evaluation of the extreme risk protection order statute in California.

CHANG: Red flag law.

WINTEMUTE: Correct. We discovered to our surprise that the law was being used with fair frequency in an effort to prevent mass shootings. So we decided to focus on those cases, and we reported 21 of them. We can't prove that the recovery of firearms in most of those cases prevented mass shootings from happening, but we do know firearms were recovered or purchases blocked in most cases and the shootings didn't occur.

CHANG: OK. So what we have here is not definitive proof that red flag laws do indeed work, but we have some anecdotal evidence that show they might be working. Could you give us an example of one or two of these cases you looked at?

WINTEMUTE: Sure. A disgruntled former employee made credible threats to return to his workplace and kill co-workers. One of the employees of that company reported this to law enforcement, who determined that this person had just purchased a 12-gauge shotgun. And our mandatory 10-day waiting period before he could acquire the gun, there were about two days left. So during that time, law enforcement was able to go to a judge who reviewed the evidence, issued a restraining order and the purchase was blocked. So when law enforcement went to the man's house, they found 400 rounds of ammunition for that shotgun.

CHANG: Wow. All right. So that's an example of maybe law enforcement intervening just in time so he couldn't get his hands on a gun that would have been used to perhaps kill his colleagues.

WINTEMUTE: That's exactly right.

CHANG: OK. How about another case?

WINTEMUTE: Sure. A group of children reported a woman had just threatened to shoot them all and had pointed something that looked like a handgun at them. An officer went to the scene and then interviewed the woman, who said, yes, I did make that threat. Here is the mock handgun. I think it was a paper towel roll wrapped in electrician's tape. Here's what I pointed at them, but, officer, there is a real gun, a revolver, under my living room table. The officer contacted a judge, got an emergency restraining order, took possession of the firearm and took the woman into custody for having made the threats. While in custody, she continued to declare quite explicitly her intent to kill those children.

CHANG: Given the challenges of trying to prove the effectiveness of red flag laws definitively, what further research do you think is needed and is feasible?

WINTEMUTE: To bring it down to a simpler level, the country is riveted by these mass shootings. We learned yesterday from a new poll that 25% of the country are changing the way they go about their daily lives because they're concerned about the risk of being a victim of a mass shooting. Some kind of intervention is needed. There is very little risk to this intervention. It might work. We can't prove it, but we as individuals, policymakers, face the obligation to do the best we can with the evidence we have.

CHANG: That's Dr. Garen Wintemute. He's the director of the Violence Prevention Research Program at the University of California, Davis. Thank you very much.

WINTEMUTE: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.