“Red Flag Laws” May Help Prevent Gun Suicides

A recent study indicates a promising, if equivocal, effect.

Posted Aug 09, 2018

80's Child/Shutterstock
Source: 80's Child/Shutterstock

By Ilana Herzig

In the wake of prevalent gun violence and horrific mass shootings in the United States—the Parkland school shooting in February 2018, the Las Vegas music festival shooting in 2017, the massacre at a gay nightclub in Orlando in 2016, to name only the most recent and deadly—the push for different and stricter gun policies has gained momentum. Yet the majority of gun deaths in the U.S. are in fact from suicide, and with a recent study, researchers put forward evidence that at least one type of law can make an impact on such deaths.

Red flag laws, also known as gun violence restraining order laws or extreme risk protection order laws (ERPO), institute a legal process with the aim of preventing gun violence perpetrated by those who pose a risk of injury to themselves or others. While the specifics of the laws differ state-to-state, they broadly allow temporary seizure of firearms from those not already prohibited from owning them. The process is typically initiated by police (but may be informed by concerned family or community members) and subject to appeal.

Enacted in Connecticut in 1999 and Indiana in 2005, the laws were written in response to homicides. But once clinical and forensic psychologist Aaron J. Kivisto at the University of Indianapolis realized that “in practice, about 70 percent of the guns in the first eight years [Indiana’s law] was in place were seized due to suicide concerns,” he decided to investigate. “We’ve known for a long time that about two out of three people killed by a gun die by suicide,” Kivisto says, and the issue, to him, is where “the intersection of mental health and gun violence really comes together.”

To analyze the effect of the laws, Kivisto and Peter Lee Phalen, a doctoral student at the University of Maryland, created “synthetic” versions of Connecticut and Indiana based on "a weighted combination of other states around the country," Kivisto explains, "so that in the end, this comparison state looks essentially identical to Indiana in terms of demographics, gun ownership, and suicide rates." The goal was to see how actual suicide rates in these two states following the enactment of the laws compared with what suicide rates likely would have been in the absence of the laws. The researchers' methods also accounted for the potential influence of factors associated with state-level suicide rates, such as gun ownership, population density, and poverty.

In the 10 years following its enactment, Indiana’s law was associated with an estimated 7.5 percent fewer firearm suicides (“larger than that seen in any comparison state by chance alone,” Kivisto and Phalen wrote). Connecticut’s law was associated with a 1.6 percent reduction prior the Virginia Tech mass shooting in 2007. After the shooting, which precipitated increased enforcement of the law, firearm suicides through 2015 were reduced by an estimated 13.7 percent.

There was also, however, evidence of a replacement effect, where a decrease in firearm-related suicides is accompanied by a rise in suicides by other means. Indiana’s law may have prevented 383 firearm suicides over 10 years but led to 44 additional non-firearm suicides, according to the analysis. In Connecticut, the benefits of the law may have been offset by non-firearm suicides: Between 2007 and 2015, there were an estimated 128 fewer firearm suicides and 140 more non-firearm suicides than there may have been otherwise. Thus, as Kivisto and Phalen note, “These findings suggest that firearm seizure legislation is associated with meaningful reductions in population-level firearm suicide rates, with mixed evidence for a replacement effect.”

Connecticut’s more equivocal results may be attributable to its pre-existing “tapestry of policies,” Kivisto says. Since it already had more gun policies in place than Indiana did, he says, "it’s a little harder to tease out the effects of this law specifically."

“No policy is perfect,” says Susan B. Sorenson, a professor of social policy and executive director of the Ortner Center on Violence & Abuse in Relationships at University of Pennsylvania. But Sorenson, who was not involved in the study, thinks red flag laws may prove helpful as part of a multi-pronged policy approach, especially “with legislators being willing to acknowledge that people in crisis should be protected in these circumstances.”

While background checks prove effective in some settings, Kivisto says, they may not address specific issues that red flag laws do account for, like sudden life changes—losing a job, getting a divorce, developing a substance abuse problem. On the other hand, requiring a permit to purchase firearms along with “a good number of pieces of policy have proven effective in reducing homicides” as well as suicides, Kivisto says.

The non-criminalizing, temporary seizures allowed by red flag laws can “fill an important gap in the policy picture,” Kivisto argues. “Right now seems to be the time when states—and even the federal government—appear open to considering red flag gun laws.” (Even the National Rifle Association has expressed support for the laws—with some conditions.)

To date, more than a dozen states—including California, Washington, Oregon, Florida, Maryland, Delaware, and most recently Rhode Island, Massachusetts, and Illinois—have these laws on the books, and they have been proposed in 19 others, according to the paper.

Is this particular type of law enough? “The answer is clearly no,” Kivisto says, but “It’s one potential tool that can make some positive differences.”

Ilana Herzig is an editorial intern at Psychology Today.