In an effort to combat gun violence—from mass shootings to suicide-by-gun—states are increasing turning to a new tool usually called “red flag laws.” Under these laws, family members or law enforcement may file a petition for a court order to prohibit an individual (known as the “respondent”) from possessing a firearm, because they believe the respondent poses a serious danger of hurting someone with a gun.
Although a few states had similar laws as far back as 1999, these “extreme risk protection orders” (or ERPOs) became increasingly popular with state legislators (and voters) in the wake of the 2018 school shooting in Parkland, Florida. But critics pushed back, warning that red flag laws could be unconstitutional.
Federal law—and many state laws—already make it a crime to possess a gun under some circumstances, including if you:
(18 U.S.C. § 922(g) (2021).)
The problem with these laws, according to many anti-gun violence activists, is that they don’t allow preventative measures when people haven’t yet been subject to legal proceedings but are showing signs that they’re likely to use guns to hurt themselves or others. That scenario is very common, according to an FBI study of active shooters. Modeled on domestic violence restraining orders, ERPOs are meant to prevent gun violence outside of the home (as well as suicide with a gun) by temporarily removing access to firearms by people who’ve been identified as dangerous, regardless of their criminal history.
In most states with red flag laws, both law enforcement officers and family or household members may file petitions for ERPOs (sometimes called gun violence or firearms restraining orders). A few states allow other community members to petition for ERPOs, such as:
However, even if you live in one of the states that allow only law enforcement to request these orders (such as Florida and Indiana), you can go to your local police or other law enforcement agency and ask them to file a petition. Be sure to give them any information (and evidence) you have that makes you afraid the respondent could hurt someone with a gun, including information about guns the respondent has.
Although the requirements and procedures vary from state to state, people who request EPROs typically must sign an affidavit spelling out specific facts that make them believe the respondents pose an immediate risk of injuring themselves or others with a firearm. When courts decide whether or not to grant the petition, the level of proof required depends on the state and whether it’s a temporary or final order.
Generally, courts will promptly decide whether to issue an emergency order based on the affidavit and other information that’s provided. If the order is issued “ex parte” (meaning the respondent isn’t present), the court usually will make its decision based on whether there’s reasonable or probable cause to support the petition. The standard of proof may be higher in some states or when a family member filed the petition. Ex parte ERPOs last a short period of time, ranging from one or two days in Maryland to 21 days in California and Oregon.
After the respondent has received notice and an opportunity to object at a hearing, the court will decide whether to issue a final ERPO. Because these orders last longer, state laws almost always require a higher standard of proof supporting the petition, like clear and convincing evidence. Most final ERPOs last up to a year, although they may last as long as five years in California. In addition, most states have procedures for renewing or lifting the orders after a hearing.
If you’ve been served with a temporary ERPO and you want to challenge it—or you want to get a permanent order lifted—you should consider speaking with an attorney who handles restraining orders. Although you aren't required to have a lawyer at the hearing, an attorney who's experienced in this area can help you gather the evidence you need and can represent you at the hearing by presenting that evidence and questioning witnesses.
Look Out for Changed Procedures During the Coronavirus Pandemic
In response to the COVID-19 public health emergency, state courts may have temporary rules with different procedures related to ERPOs. For instance, Connecticut allowed online filing for a temporary order, and California extended the length of time that an emergency order remains in effect, in order to allow more time for a hearing to take place. For more information, you can find links here to state courts' COVID-19 websites.
Often, ERPOs simply order respondents to turn over their guns to law enforcement officers or agencies, so enforcement of the orders depends on their cooperation. Some states, such as Maryland and Florida, address this gap by authorizing search warrants to seize any guns that respondents possess, but only if there’s probable cause to believe they didn’t surrender a firearm in their possession. In a few other states, like Illinois and New Jersey, law enforcement may obtain a warrant at the same time as the ERPO—meaning that officers will search for and seize the guns when they serve the orders.
Second Amendment Sanctuaries: Can Local Law Enforcement Refuse to Enforce Red Flag Laws?
Some counties have responded to the passage of red flag laws in their states by declaring themselves "Second Amendment Sanctuaries," with their sheriffs vowing not to enforce what they believe are unconstitutional laws. The legality of refusing to enforce the law is dubious, and so far (as discussed below), no court has held that a red flag law violates the constitution. But the reality on the ground is that ERPOs (and protection orders in general) have often been unevenly enforced, particularly in counties that haven't allocated enough resources for enforcement.
In addition to the expected Second Amendment concerns, gun rights activists and even some civil rights advocates have argued that red flag laws could violate the constitutional right to due process, because temporary ERPOs generally may be issued—and guns confiscated—without notice to the respondents or a chance to appear at a hearing. Even though most red flag laws have provisions that make it a crime to lie in petitions (or, in some states, to file petitions in order to harass someone), critics also raise concerns about the potential for abuse, particularly when it may be difficult for some respondents to show up at all of the court hearings.
Courts in a few states have held that their red flag laws don’t violate the constitution. (For example, see Hope v. State, 133 A.3d 519 (Conn. App. Ct. 2016); Redington v. Indiana, 992 N.E.2d 823 (Ind. Ct. App. 2013); and Davis v. Gilchrist County Sheriff’s Office, 280 So.3d 524 (Fla. Dist. Ct. App. (2019).) However, further court challenges to red flag laws are likely, and it’s not clear how other courts will rule on the issue.
As of February 2021, the following states passed red flag laws (or similar gun seizure laws):
This is a changing area of the law, and several other states are considering similar bills. (See this map for the status of pending legislation.)