The State of Michigan brought forward an extreme measure meant to safeguard citizens from the dangers of mentally ill mass shooters. Known as the “red flag” law, the “Extreme Risk Protection Order” was signed into law on May 23, 2023.
However, while its Constitutionality and impact are called into question, this law brings about deeper concerns for the police officers responsible for enforcing it.
What are “Red Flag” Laws?
The Extreme Risk Protection Order began as House Bill 4146 in February 2023, after it was introduced by Democrat Representative Kelly Breen. The original bill was modeled after earlier legislation passed in Illinois and was designed to keep guns away from people who are deemed “highly likely” to commit violent crimes.
Under Michigan’s Red Flag law, courts can issue special “extreme risk” protective orders to people who pose a risk of injury to themselves or others. Any law enforcement officer, family member, or health care provider can request this protective order from the Court. If a judge grants it, the person will be prohibited from owning or buying a firearm.
The proposal found fertile political ground in the wake of several mass shootings over the past few years. Some of these crimes were perpetrated by people with clear signs of mental instability. Red flag laws would theoretically keep this from happening again.
What’s Wrong with Red Flag Laws?
In theory, this sounds nice: it offers an option for people who are known criminals behaving erratically or issuing threats from having a firearm in their possession. Theoretically, this means law enforcement can intervene before the crime happens.
And yet, once this ideal is brought to reality, the holes in its reasoning appear quickly. The largest one? It patently interferes with the Second Amendment. Now, this law gives judges the authority to revoke a Constitutional right by simply ruling on something that has not happened yet (maybe spurred by the right words with the wrong intent).
It should be no surprise that many political organizations were quick to denounce this idea. However, their protests fell on deaf ears. The bill turned into law, and now we must figure out how to enforce it.
Where Does This Leave Cops?
Removing a weapon from a potential criminal could mean risky business for law enforcement officers. After an Extreme Risk Protection Order is granted, if the person affected already owns a gun, the system expects police officers to seize it.
What does this mean in real life? That police officers now have to go after a potentially unstable armed person. This can easily get dicey, if not lethal – and it’s already happened.
In 2018, in Baltimore, police officers responded to an emergency call to seize a weapon from Gary J. Willis, a 61-year-old who had received a similar red flag order. This quickly became a “tense, dangerous situation,” where the police officers were forced to shoot Willis to protect their own lives.
According to Matt Saxton, executive director of Michigan’s Sheriffs Association, lawmakers have not sought the opinion of police officers or sheriffs regarding this concern. The law does not contain any provision or procedure to ensure a gun can be removed safely:
We were “never asked to comment on conversations of how to enforce the new law. [We’ve been] left in the dark, not sure what to strategize for and what to envision when [the new law] takes effect,” Saxton said to the Institute for Legislative Action.
Once again, officers are expected to put their lives on the line and to figure it out as they go.
Is The Risk Worth it?
Most people agree that a career in law enforcement comes with certain risks. Ultimately, most officers are willing to risk their own health if it will save lives or protect innocents. However, such willingness should never be taken for granted – especially when the “saving lives” part is in question.
Red Flag laws have existed for years in other states. So far, figures fail to show any significant impact on people’s safety. Ultimately, as much as mass shootings seem to monopolize the news cycle, they represent a small percentage of violent crimes. By and large, shootings are not perpetrated by the mentally ill as part of a breakdown. They are done by criminals who are out to hurt people. The Michigan Red Flag law could easily leave law-abiding citizens unprotected and police officers hurt.
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