Red flag laws to fight mass shootings? Fine for an ideal world, but we don’t live in one.

September 11th, 2019

Abuse of power is inevitable if the government can confiscate firearms from citizens who aren’t charged with crimes or diagnosed with mental illness.

Politicians like to talk about solving problems. But, as we all know, actually solving Americans’ problems from Washington is very hard. So, while politicians would like to solve problems, usually they are content to seem like they are solving problems. This approach may not help the American people, but it at least helps them.

This is the source of the momentum in Congress for federal “red flag” laws, which allow private citizens to request court orders for officials to confiscate the firearms of people legally permitted to own them. The goal of these laws is to head off mass shootings before they happen. It’s an understandable impulse. And, after all, the perpetrators of these tragically familiar murder sprees often exhibit symptoms of mental illness or dangerous intentions before they ever commit a crime.

Great in theory, bad in practice

What’s wrong with people close to a troubled young man being able to warn police and petition courts to take away their guns?

In an ideal world? Nothing. But we don’t live in one of those. In the world we actually inhabit, state-level experiments with “red flag” laws should give all Americans pause before handing over this kind of power to Washington.

First of all, the bedrock of America’s legal system is all citizens’ guarantee to “due process” before the government infringes on any of their legal rights. Red flag laws around the country skirt or even trample due process. Targets of the proposed gun confiscation orders are often unaware that such orders have been issued, or even petitioned. Defendants often are unable to appear at a hearing or cross-examine witnesses.

This is not just a violation of fundamental procedural rights, it has led to tragic outcomes. Police arriving unannounced at a gun owner’s home demanding that he turn over his firearms is a recipe for tragedy.

Second, once granted the power to confiscate firearms from citizens neither charged of a crime nor diagnosed with mental health problems, what is to stop government officials from abusing that power? The Democratic Party’s hard lurch to the left in recent years raises troubling questions about its approach to such questions. On campuses today, it is common to assert that “hate speech” is akin to violence and, on the left, that the mere expression of conservative political ideas constitutes such “hate speech.”

What standard will Democrat-led Justice Departments and, worse, progressive judges, apply? Will pro-life views disqualify citizens from their Second Amendment rights, on the nonsensical but nonetheless frequently asserted grounds that anti-abortion Americans are a threat to women’s health? What about supporters of President Donald Trump, who according to some on the the left are all racists and white nationalists?

Finally, a study of an Indiana law allowing police to seize firearms from people they considered dangerous found outcomes closely correlated to defendants’ presence at the hearing. This is concerning. It suggests that the upshot of red flag laws may be to disarm not dangerous people, but simply the less privileged — those who cannot afford to take off work or who lack the means to hire good lawyers.

Don’t fall for phony ‘solutions’

In the wake of mass shootings, everybody wants to do something, myself included. But that something has to actually help, or the cynicism generated by another phony political debate will only make matters worse.

If members of Congress are really interested in helping, the first thing they should do is correct their own course. The House and Senate have become cesspools of mindless, angry, partisan demonization, even including baseless accusations that President Trump and all of his supporters are racist. Our culture — from politics to the news media to the perpetual rage machine of social media — has coarsened beyond recognition.

It used to be we worried that movies and video games were inundating young people and saturating our culture with violence and hate. These days, C-SPAN is becoming just as bad. There are solutions to the problems of gun violence, mental health and the alienation of troubled young men. But to find them, we all need to rise above the example set by Congress and fix the culture at large.

Jim DeMint served as senator for South Carolina and is now the chairman of the Conservative Partnership Institute. Follow him on Twitter: @JimDeMint