Massachusetts is among 17 states, plus the District of Columbia, with a “red flag” law letting relatives or members of a household — not just law enforcement — petition a court for an “extreme risk protection order” to temporarily seize the guns of a person believed to be a danger to themselves or others. New York joined the list last August, more than a year after Massachusetts, and already has emerged as a leader, becoming the first to let school personnel apply for such an order. Governor Andrew Cuomo also announced a statewide education campaign, including a call center to field questions from family members, police, and educators. By November, he’d already hosted two conferences, with a third scheduled for early 2020. It’s past time for Massachusetts to follow the lead and launch its own large-scale public awareness campaign.
During the Massachusetts red flag law’s first year, 20 petitions for an extreme risk protection order, or ERPO, were filed, with 14 approved, the Globe reported. That’s at least 14 lives potentially saved. Even if it were one life, I would still consider it a resounding success. But as a journalist who’s reported extensively on domestic violence, I can’t help but wonder whether some of the heart-breaking tragedies that have occurred here in the past 18 months could have been prevented if more people knew about extreme risk protection orders.
Tragedies like the October 7 murder-suicide in Abington, where investigators say Joseph Zaccardi, 43, a fledgling children’s book author, shot his wife, Deirdre, their 11-year-old daughter, and their 9-year-old twins before turning the gun on himself. Though statistical data are scarce, criminologists say this type of crime, referred to as “familicide,” is the most common form of mass killing.
To this day, Zaccardi’s own words posted on his Facebook page — that he works at “unemployed and going crazy” — provide one of the few public clues about his inner struggles. Police had not received any prior calls to the family’s home, which suggests that Joseph Zaccardi either kept his turmoil hidden from the outside world, like many do, or that he “snapped” without warning. The latter is unlikely, says Jack McDevitt, a Northeastern University criminology professor. McDevitt chaired the Gun Violence Prevention Committee that led the way to Massachusetts’ red flag law. There are frequently signs before a mass shooting that are either ignored or missed by those closest to the shooter, research shows.
After these incidents, McDevitt says, “We do find out that people did have a fear or concern about these individuals.” In certain situations, even a hearing on whether a person may be dangerous “might be enough to deter the person. Even if you don’t take the guns away, it’s going to make it harder. Not impossible, but harder,” he adds. A 2016 Duke University School of Medicine study found that in 44 percent of extreme risk protection order cases in Connecticut, which became the first state to pass a red flag law 20 years ago, the request for a warrant resulted in gun owners receiving psychiatric treatment they might otherwise not have received.
The sad reality is that many who could benefit from extreme risk protection orders probably don’t know they exist. McDevitt says he suspects that in Massachusetts, “many people do not know they have this right.” Police officers in Connecticut told the Duke researchers they believed the red flag law was not as effective initially for the same reason. Though researchers and advocacy organizations assert that extreme risk protection orders are an effective tool to reduce deadly gun incidents, there aren’t any ongoing, large-scale awareness campaigns in the public safety or public health arenas in Massachusetts.
But I can imagine a public service campaign that might still help women, the primary targets of domestic violence. What if during their commutes women could see billboards about the well-documented connection between domestic violence and gun violence? Or posters at T stops informing them that the presence of a gun in domestic violence situations increases a woman’s risk of dying by homicide by 500 percent, according to a study published by the American Journal of Public Health.
What if women could see fliers in their doctors’ offices informing them that, according to the FBI, more than half of women murdered with guns are killed by family members or intimate partners? What if, somehow, while Deirdre Zaccardi was posting family photos of her precious children on Facebook, as she often did, a public service announcement had popped up with a toll-free number and website for women facing intimate partner violence or threats?
The good news is that two advocacy organizations, Stop Handgun Violence and the Massachusetts Coalition to Prevent Gun Violence, are not idly waiting for a state-sanctioned awareness effort. With the help of two students at the Boston University School of Public Health, they’re collaborating to create a robust website they plan to roll out early this year to supplement the state’s more basic website on how to apply for an extreme risk protection order. They’re also hoping to hold trainings this year for advocacy organization staffers, as well as first responders such as law enforcement agencies. That’s a step in the right direction, but not enough for a state with a population of 6.9 million people.
Massachusetts lawmakers got it right when they passed the red flag law. Extreme risk protection orders help save lives, while also ensuring critical legal protections for gun owners. It’s time for lawmakers to work with public health and safety leaders and other gun violence, domestic violence, and suicide prevention stakeholders to figure out how to fund and launch an effective, large-scale campaign that reaches those who need its lifesaving protections most.
Without more awareness, says Ruth Zakarin, executive director of the Massachusetts Coalition to Prevent Gun Violence, this law could very well end up as many other laws unfortunately do: “just some words on a piece of paper.”
Chandra Thomas Whitfield is an investigative journalist based in Denver. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.