Red Flag Laws: Constitutionality and Enforcement of Extreme Risk Protection Orders

Learn about state laws that allow law enforcement, family members, and sometimes other community members to request court orders to disarm people who pose a risk of gun violence.

By , Legal Editor
Updated by Stacy Barrett, Attorney · UC Law San Francisco
Updated December 20, 2023

To combat gun violence—from mass shootings to suicide-by-gun—states are increasingly turning to extreme risk protection orders (ERPOs), more commonly 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.

Only a handful of states had red flag laws prior to 2018, but they became increasingly popular with state lawmakers (and voters) in the wake of the 2018 school shooting in Parkland, Florida. Critics, however, have pushed back on the laws, warning that red flag laws could be unconstitutional.

What Are Red Flag Laws?

Red flag laws are gun confiscation laws that allow a judge to temporarily remove a person's access to guns when there is evidence that the person poses an immediate risk to themselves or others. Not all states have red flag laws and red flag law procedures vary from state to state.

What's the Difference Between Red Flag Laws and Other Gun Prohibitions?

Federal law—and many state laws—already make it a crime to possess a gun under some circumstances, including if you:

  • have been convicted of certain crimes (domestic violence misdemeanors as well as most felonies)
  • had a domestic violence restraining order issued against you
  • use illegal drugs
  • have been dishonorably discharged from the military
  • are in the U.S. illegally or on a nonimmigrant visa, or
  • have been committed to a psychiatric facility or found by a court to be mentally ill.

(18 U.S.C. § 922(g) (2023).)

The problem with these "prohibited persons" 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. 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.

Who Can Request Extreme Risk Protection Orders?

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:

  • employers and coworkers of the respondent (in California)
  • certain health care workers (Maryland), and
  • certain school personnel (New York and California).

How Long Do Firearms Restraining Orders Last, and What Proof Is Needed?

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.

Temporary ERPOs

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.

Final ERPOs

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 represent you at the hearing.

When May Authorities Confiscate Guns Under Red Flag Laws?

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.

Are Red Flag Laws Constitutional?

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 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.

Which States Have Red Flag Laws?

According to Everytown Research and Policy, as of December 2023, the following states passed red flag laws (or similar gun seizure laws):

This is a changing area of the law. Several states are considering similar bills, while existing regulations face legal challenges. If you have questions about ERPOs in your state, talk to a lawyer.

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