By Rob Morse
After the Covenant School shooting in Nashville, Republican Governor Bill Lee of Tennessee announced that he wants a red flag law. I’m not sure if the governor is working for the voters here or surrendering to the press.
It isn’t clear what “red flag law” really means here and the Governor’s proposal seems to have shifted over time. In general, red flag laws allow the government to confiscate someone’s guns without the benefit of due process. Beyond that, the details vary. In this case it looks like Governor Lee is working harder to please the press than he is to make anyone in Tennessee safer.
Lee latched onto the issue of a red flag law when another murderer with mental health issues opened fire in a school. Police responded quickly and shot the murderer to death. The Covenant school was a gun-free zone so there were no armed defenders at the scene when the attack started. The 28-year-old murderer killed three 9-year-old children and three adults before police officers stopped her.
Our children’s safety at school is a concern to almost everyone. Regurgitating calls for a red flag law is a convenient tool for a Governor who needs a soundbite-friendly answer to questions from the press.
The concern that I have is that most “public safety” laws passed in haste after traumatic events are actually ineffective and frequently harmful. Enacting a firearm purchase waiting period may sound good. It lets an elected official say he did something to protect the children. But mandatory waiting periods simply don’t stop mass murderers. And waiting periods often leave domestic abuse victims disarmed.
Mass murderers are obsessed, but their acts aren’t the result of emotional impulse. Mass-murderers usually plan their attacks in great detail over an extended period of time (as the Nashville shooter reportedly did). She wrote a lengthy manifesto. She bought seven firearms over time. Passing a waiting period bill would let someone like Governor Lee say he did something and the press would never question whether waiting periods actually protect our children.
The murderer’s parents were worried about her mental health. They didn’t want her to have firearms because they thought she was a danger to herself or to others. Yet I can’t find records showing the killer’s parents, or anyone else, asking that she be confined for a mental health evaluation. That confinement usually requires the agreement of a mental health expert and often requires a concurring opinion. The Nashville killer exhibited violent and suicidal ideation. It’s an open question whether doctors would have, or could have, forced the killer into treatment or confinement.
Whatever the warning signs and history of the killer, it’s always an easy political move to “arrest the guns” so that the voters feel like politicians have addressed “gun violence” after a high profile attack like the Nashville school shooting.
Red flag laws were originally procedures in civil court where someone — usually a spouse or family member — goes before a judge to claim that a gun owner is a threat. The list of who can ask for a red flag law, which varies by state, has expanded over time.
The problem is the hearing is usually conducted ex parte, without the gun owner being present or even informed of the legal proceeding. They have no opportunity to counter the claim or make the case that it’s false. The standard of evidence in these hearings is low, and it is trivially easy to meet the preponderance of evidence threshold when the judge only hears one side of the case.
A judge is then asked to issue an order confiscating the targeted gun owner’s firearms. Since this is a civil proceeding and the gun owner hasn’t committed a crime, the usual requirement that the defendant have competent legal counsel doesn’t apply. The guns are usually then taken by police and the gun owner then has to pay for their own legal representation to fight the order.
As you can imagine, these confiscation laws can be and often are abused in cases of divorce, custody battles, and revenge lawfare. Governor Lee, however, says his law will be different.
Perhaps the Tennessee gun confiscation law Lee wants will require due process and proper legal representation for the gun owner. The problem, again, is that mass murder isn’t a gun problem. Arresting a crazy person’s guns still leaves the that person on the streets.
A mass murderer recently killed eight people at a bus stop by driving over the victims with his car. A few years ago, a terrorist in New York murdered eight people on a bike path when he ran them down with a rented truck. The worst attack on a school in US history wasn’t carried out with firearms. Disarming honest gun owners does far more harm than good, but it’s all too popular among elected officials looking for easy “answers.”
California is very proud of its extreme gun control laws. The state was the first to pass a red flag…er, gun violence restraining order law almost a decade ago. The Golden State has mandatory waiting periods and requires that people be over 21 years of age to purchase most firearms. California also led the nation in mass shootings, but the mainstream press rarely mentions that.
The good news is that mass murderers have already shown us how to protect our children. The murderers’ own journals and manifestos have told us what to do. Most of them feel like failures. They’re determined to kill and gain infamy. They almost always attack gun-free zones so they know they’ll only face disarmed victims. When the murderers make a mistake and an armed citizen is present, the armed citizen stops the killer over half the time.
The other news you’ll rarely hear is that we’ve never had a mass murderer attack a school that has a publicly-announced program of arming the school’s staff. That’s true in general, and in this case in particular. The Nashville police chief said that the murderer avoided other targets and chose the Covenant School becauseit was undefended.
I hope Governor Lee and the Tennessee legislature will do what’s best for Tennesseans and their children. While the red flag proposal plays well in the press, the Governor’s gotten a lot of pushback so far from legislators. Meanwhile a bill to allow volunteer school staff to carry arms is sitting in the Tennessee legislature, but that solution — one that’s been proven to work in schools that have tried it — isn’t what the media want to hear.
This article originally appeared at Slow Facts Blog and is reprinted here with permission.