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Red flag laws save lives — but only if they’re used

The suspect in the recent Illinois mass shooting slipped through state’s red flag law. It’s a warning for other states, including Massachusetts: Passing the law is only the first step — police, prosecutors, and the public also have to know how to use it.

Crime scene tape hangs from a pole near a child's bicycle in downtown Highland Park, Ill., on July 5, one day after a gunman killed several people and wounded dozens more at a Fourth of July parade.Ashlee Rezin/Associated Press

Gun permitting and red flag laws exist to keep guns out of the hands of people like Robert E. Crimo III, the man accused of killing seven people at an Independence Day parade in a Chicago suburb on Monday.

But even though Crimo’s warning signs were known to local police — his collection of knives had been seized by police in 2019 after he threatened to “kill everyone” — he was able to obtain a firearm license and legally acquire weapons. Once he had the guns, Illinois’ red flag law was never used to take them away; he purchased the Smith and Wesson semiautomatic rifle used in the shooting in 2020.


That’s an alarm to other states with red flag laws, including Massachusetts, that passing a law is only the first step: Police, prosecutors, and the public also have to know how to use the law.

The wave of red flag laws passed in recent years has been one of the few bright spots in gun safety regulation. Pushes to take guns away from violent or self-destructive individuals have managed to break through what is otherwise an unbridgeable partisan divide on gun regulation. Encouraging states to pass red flag laws was a major part of the recent gun control legislation signed by President Biden, the first significant piece of bipartisan gun control legislation to emerge from Capitol Hill in years.

The details of the state laws differ, but generally they allow police officers and sometimes also family members to ask a judge to take firearms away from someone who is a threat to themselves or others. Many (though not all) of the mass shooters in recent years showed signs of distress or violent tendencies beforehand, and red flag laws are a promising tool to keep guns out of the hands of unstable people.


Nineteen states and the District of Columbia have red flag laws, and studies suggest they have kept suicide rates in Indiana and Connecticut lower than they would otherwise be. But usage of the laws has been uneven. In Massachusetts, the 2018 red flag law was used to take guns away from people eight times last year. Rhode Island’s has been used 128 times in four years. In Florida, judges have issued 9,000 extreme risk protection orders since 2018.

Gun control advocates have pressed for a public awareness campaign about the laws — and just last month, California put $11 million into an 18-month effort to educate the public and law enforcement about its red flag law. Massachusetts should follow suit, with a special emphasis on training law enforcement officials.

To critics, red flag laws are a threat to gun owners’ rights, and a tool that could be used to harass gun owners in unrelated personal disputes. The orders are temporary, though, and according to State House News Service, none of the petitions filed under the 2018 Massachusetts law have been deemed fraudulent. (Filing false information to obtain an order under the red flag law is punishable by up to 2½ years behind bars.)

Getting an “extreme risk protection order” is not automatic — petitioners have to make their case to a judge. A spokesman for Suffolk District attorney Kevin R. Hayden said that local police departments or the DA’s office could guide family members through the process of seeking an order to confiscate weapons.


No single policy will stop all mass shootings, and the killing in Illinois also points to the need for much more systemic reforms, such as restoring a national ban on high-powered assault weapons. But red flag laws are one of the relatively few new tools that are both effective and politically viable. States that haven’t enacted them should take the hint from Congress and pass them. And states that already have such laws should take the Illinois tragedy as a reminder that any law is only as good as its enforcement.

Editorials represent the views of the Boston Globe Editorial Board. Follow us on Twitter at @GlobeOpinion.