Red Flag Laws Could Stop Mass Shootings. People Just Don’t Use Them.

The Buffalo and Highland Park gunmen managed to avoid their states’ red flag laws because no one reported them.
Gun rights advocates hold a flag during a rally organized by The Virginia Citizens Defense League on Capitol Square near the state capitol building on January 20, 2020 in Richmond, Virginia. (Photo by Zach Gibson/Getty Images)
Gun rights advocates hold a flag during a rally organized by The Virginia Citizens Defense League on Capitol Square near the state capitol building on January 20, 2020 in Richmond, Virginia. (Photo by Zach Gibson/Getty Images)

The gunmen in the recent mass shootings in Buffalo, New York, and Chicago managed to avoid their states’ red flag laws, despite clear signs that they intended to commit acts of violence and harm themselves and others.

In both cases, police were tipped off to their disturbing behavior at least a year before the attacks, but no one filed a report to invoke the red flag law. The Highland Park shooter’s father even helped his son get a gun license after he’d made violent threats against their family.

Red flag laws allow police, district attorneys, and even regular citizens to file court orders that temporarily ban individuals who pose a threat to themselves or others from purchasing or owning a weapon in the state. But they only work if people take advantage of them. Without the proper resources—like public education campaigns and offices directly responsible for reviewing cases—the laws are woefully less effective at preventing tragedies, experts told VICE News. 


“We have a real tool to intervene when we see that someone's on a trajectory of committing violence,” Dr. Shannon Frattaroli, a professor at Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Violence Solutions, told VICE News. “But this new way of responding to these credible threats takes time and resources and supporting the development of the infrastructure that's needed in order to bring these laws to life.”

Nineteen states and Washington, D.C., have red flag laws, but some states and cities have used them more effectively than others. 

In Fort Lauderdale, Florida, Detective Christopher Carita is the police department’s threat response detective and dedicated expert on the application of red flag laws. He leads a team focused entirely on monitoring, investigating, and completing extreme risk protection orders (ERPOs). He told VICE News local infrastructure is a necessary part of making sure stakeholders actually know red flag laws exist and how to use them.

“Recognizing the behaviors and recognizing the opportunity to use risk protection orders is absolutely critical to using it effectively,” Carita said. “You can't use the hammer that you don't take out of the toolbox.”

Carita also shows fellow officers how to use the law appropriately, safely, and equitably—something he says has changed policing for the better in the city. He’s become such an expert that he regularly contributes to national policy recommendations regarding risk protection order implementation.

“I want every officer in the U.S. to think about those cases where they've gone to a house and they've left because they didn’t have the grounds to make an arrest, but they know they're going to be back,” he said. “This is what risk protection orders are there for. It's to fill that gap between when we know something that is going to happen, maybe saving ourselves the trauma of having to return to respond to a tragic shooting a year later.”


“I want every officer in the U.S. to think about those cases where they've gone to a house and they've left because they didn’t have the grounds to make an arrest but they know they're going to be back.”

Florida implemented its red flag law in 2019 after the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, which killed 17 people and injured 17 others. In the first year, the law was used 3,500 times. As of last month, 2,845 Floridians were under risk protection orders that barred them from owning guns, the state’s Department of Law Enforcement told CNN. Municipalities that were slow to adopt red flag policies have come around after seeing their success, according to Carita.

Fort Lauderdale’s neighboring sheriff’s offices in Broward County and Palm Beach have also recently created their own dedicated teams for educating its officers on risk protection orders.

But it’s not just cops doing the work. In Seattle, the city prosecutor’s office has a unit focused on assessing risk protection orders filed by law enforcement and concerned families, coordinating the immediate removal of guns, and enforcing the restrictions. In San Diego, city attorney Mara Elliot helped create the state’s first Gun Violence Restraining Order program, which became the state-sponsored template for training hundreds of state law enforcement agencies on how to best use ERPOs to prevent violence.

“What you see in these areas is a deliberate effort to make sure that people and that law enforcement are aware of this, that they know how to use it, that they're trained. In some cases, we're seeing specialized positions where people are focusing on ERPO,” Frattaroli said.

While not the kind of sweeping federal gun control most advocates are still hoping for, these laws when used properly have proven effective. Between 2013 and 2020, red flag laws helped people intervene in at least 626 cases across six states where an individual made a credible mass shooting threat, according to a study by the National Collaborative on Gun Violence Research. Just over a fifth of those threats targeted primary, elementary, middle, and high schools.

“People who carry out these mass shootings are usually planning beforehand, and they usually leave evidence. They speak about it in classrooms. They may make threats to harm themselves or other people. That kind of leakage is very common,” said David Pucino, deputy chief counsel for the Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence. “These laws provide the means to translate those threats into concrete action to prevent the mass shooting.”

Not every state and city, however, has had the same success using their red flag laws. New York and Illinois failed to keep the gunmen in the Buffalo and the Highland Park shootings, respectively, from obtaining weapons despite the clear signs that they shouldn’t have had access to guns.

Police visited the Buffalo shooter—who killed 10 people and injured three others at a grocery store in a predominantly Black area—and subjected him to a mental health evaluation after he said he wanted to commit a murder-suicide in class last June. 

The Highland Park shooter killed at least seven people and wounded dozens of others after opening fire on a Fourth of July parade. In 2019, cops contacted him after he attempted to take his own life and reportedly told his family he was “going to kill everyone.” Local police took away several knives and swords and reported him to the state police. Because his family and police failed to file a risk protection order about the shooter’s prior issues, however, no red flags were raised when his father sponsored his application for a firearm license the following year.

These particular states don’t provide a strong, uniform framework to ensure state professionals and their citizens are knowledgeable and willing to plant the red flag that can stop problem citizens from carrying out these acts of violence, according to experts. Pucino said that making sure families are aware that limiting a loved one's access to guns is much more lenient and low-stakes compared to the potential for future acts of violence, criminal charges, or suicide.

“Once the moment of crisis is resolved, the order can be lifted. There's no future adverse consequences on this person in a way that certain other processes would have adverse consequences,” he explained.

There is hope on the horizon, though. In the wake of the Buffalo shooting, state legislators wasted no time strengthening red flag laws. Within a month of the tragedy, New York Gov. Kathy Hochul signed a ten-bill package expanding the ability to file risk protection orders to medical professionals and mandating police file them when they have evidence that an individual is at risk of committing mass harm.

The recently passed federal gun reform bill also provides funding for more states to help promote gun intervention programs, which would include efforts to educate people on the purpose and power of red flag laws. And with the bill’s bipartisan support, it's unlikely that pro-gun legislators will make an effort to undo those new policies anytime soon.

“Having those resources for training for public awareness for education is the most important thing to make sure that these laws are used more effectively moving forward,” Pucino said.