To police, the home was a powder keg. Over eight months, officers responded to more than a dozen calls reporting aggressive behavior and harassment involving the homeowner and his adult stepdaughter. Both had won abuse prevention orders against one another.
Both also legally owned firearms: four pistols, four rifles, three shotguns, and assorted ammunition, with all but one of the pistols having belonged to the stepfather.
So with the “unrelenting bitterness” still escalating, Holliston police turned to a new option to help avoid a potentially violent end: They asked a court to take the guns away.
Red flag petitions, like the one Holliston police filed, are part of a fledgling frontier in gun law that a year after its passage in Massachusetts remains a little-used — but, supporters say, valuable — tool within the state’s already tight gun regulations.
While already in 17 states, the concept has now suddenly sprung to the fore in Washington, D.C., where policy makers are scrambling for a response to the latest mass shootings, this time in Ohio and Texas.
The experience in Massachusetts, however, suggests it’s been largely used in cases of suicide prevention and domestic incidents. Broader research is scant, and although advocates say the laws may have already helped prevent an attack elsewhere, it’s unclear whether the law has played such a role in Massachusetts.
Neither Texas nor Ohio have such laws, and other states that have lived through horrific mass shootings, such as California and Florida, passed their measures after those events.
The Massachusetts law, which Governor Charlie Baker signed in July 2018 in the wake of the Parkland, Fla., massacre, gives judges the power to strip a person of their legally owned guns after a family member, current or former romantic partner, or local police official files a signed affidavit with the court, identifying them as a danger.
Judges can make that determination even before the person has had a chance to make his or her case, but the law requires that a hearing be held within 10 days of the person being flagged. The judge can then order the person to surrender all firearms — and the right to legally obtain new ones — for up to a year.
Since last August, just 20 petitions (also known as Extreme Risk Protection Orders) have been filed in Massachusetts courts, with most — about 14 — generating at least an emergency order from a judge, court data show.
Of the 10 filed so far this year and reviewed by the Globe, they share a common thread: Five were initiated by police or relatives after a loved one made “suicidal statements” or threatened to hurt other family members, court records show. And virtually all of them fall within domestic relations, including an ex-spouse concerned that her former husband may “self-harm” or hurt their children, or a toxic dispute between family members.
In the latter case, Holliston police sought a petition against both the stepfather and the stepdaughter in Framingham District Court, arguing that an expired abuse prevention order meant they could both legally own guns again, and that “personal harm may come to one or both parties.”
“I additionally believe that willingly and enthusiastically engaging in this pattern of dysfunction may be indicative of an unaddressed mental health issue in one, or both parties,” Detective Ciara Maguire wrote in the March 28 petition.
A judge approved the order and in April, extended it another year, court records show. Both the stepfather and stepdaughter also had their licenses to carry seized. Neither returned calls seeking comment from the Globe, which is not naming them because police have not accused them of a crime.
The Globe reviewed petitions filed in 2019 at eight courthouses, in Ayer, Framingham, Hingham, Marlborough, Orleans, Quincy, Taunton, and Wrentham. Only one was outright denied by a judge because the person in question had an expired gun permit. The law only applies to those with active licenses.
On the federal level, it’s unclear what specific legislation could emerge, but the concept has drawn bipartisan support, including from President Trump, who said that those deemed a danger should lose their guns “through rapid due process.” Senator Marco Rubio, a Florida Republican, said such a law “can actually stop the next attack.”
The National Rifle Association, which has historically held huge sway in Congress, has issued blanket statements opposing legislation that could infringe on the rights of “law-abiding” citizens, but it has used softer language that hints at being open to a red flag law.
On the local level, specific details of red flag laws vary widely among the 17 states and in Washington, D.C.
In three states — Florida, Rhode Island, and Vermont — only law enforcement officials can petition for such orders, while in Hawaii, Maryland, and D.C., mental health and medical professionals can also file them, according to the Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence. New York law also allows school administrators to seek them, according to the group.
The use of such laws, meanwhile, is so far uneven. Maryland, for example, has fielded 788 petitions for gun removal, and judges have granted more than 400 in the 10 months since it took effect there, according to state data published by the Associated Press.
The Giffords Law Center, in touting the law’s effectiveness, said four people who made threats against schools in Maryland have already been disarmed.
That many of petitions in Massachusetts are tied to suicide prevention isn’t a surprise to the law’s supporters. State Representative Marjorie C. Decker, who helped pushed Massachusetts’ law in the wake of the Parkland, Fla., high school shooting in February 2018, said the “whole idea” of the law was to cut down on suicides by gun.
A 2017 study of Connecticut’s 1999 law, for example, estimated 72 suicides were averted because of the measure, and that if other states followed suit, it “could significantly mitigate the risk.” In Massachusetts, where lawmakers have built one of the country’s most stringent set of gun laws, firearms are used in 22 percent of suicides, about half as often as hanging, according to state date for 2016, the most recent year available.
“We know this law works,” Decker said. But, she said, it’s also just one piece in approaching gun laws. “It’s also important to recognize that so do background checks, so do waiting periods. There are a lot of other things out there. The red flag law was one of the last policies that we implemented.”
In Massachusetts, the Gun Owners Action League of Massachusetts, a local NRA affiliate, criticized the legislation because it lacked a clearly defined mental health component. Jim Wallace, the group’s executive director, said that one year in, the red flag law appears to have been used similarly to an abuse prevention order.
“So why did we need another law?” he said. “To me, it was pitched as something it never was to begin with. We already had those things here in Massachusetts. This was more about sensational politics than it was about good policy.”
Advocates disagree, arguing that the kind of situations that red flags have been used for — family disputes and domestic incidents — often occur in the background of suspected mass shooters. That only 20 petitions have been filed so far, however, speaks to the need for a more aggressive public education campaign touting the law as an option, said Ruth Zakarin, executive director of the Massachusetts Coalition to Prevent Gun Violence.
“A [health] provider can’t petition for ERPO on behalf of someone. But I think the more we can get them more on board with knowing about ERPO, with having conversations with families they’re working with, I do think that will increase utilization,” Zakarin said.