June 13, 2022

Last weekend, a bipartisan group of 10 senators announced an agreement for gun control legislation, including grants for states to pass and administer red flag laws.

The Poynter Institute held a training sponsored by the Joyce Foundation on June 13 to help journalists cover red flag laws. We heard tips from Johnny Magdaleno, courts reporter at The Indianapolis Star, Jennifer Mascia, founding staff at The Trace, and Dr. Garen Wintemute, a violence prevention expert at the University of California, Davis. On June 14, the training will cover other types of gun legislation (sign up here).

Already on the books in 19 states, red flag laws provide a civil court path to temporarily remove guns from people who pose a potential danger.

“Red flag laws are a tool to separate someone from their guns in a time of crisis,” Mascia said.

Here are some tips for journalists covering red flag laws:

  • When covering a red flag law in your state, read the statute and interview law enforcement officials about the use of the law and how they document cases. The Indianapolis Star found that police kept a spreadsheet of cases (including ones that never went to court), and reporters also received bulk data from a court agency showing all filed cases. The Star used this method to track how police and prosecutors failed to fully enforce red flag laws, leading to preventable mass shootings, in their Pulitzer finalist series of stories.
  • Go to courtrooms and see who is testifying (police, family members, etc.) at hearings and how the judge responds.
  • Seek statistics on red flag laws from different counties. One option is to single out the county filing the most petitions, and see what they’re doing right. (The New York Times did this for Suffolk County after the Buffalo shooting.)
  • In states without red flag laws, reporters can look at similar laws, such as restraining order laws, and look for loopholes where red flag laws could have helped.
  • Have a conversation in your newsroom about what term you want to use for these laws. Journalists frequently refer to them as “red flag laws,” but they go by many names, including extreme risk protection orders (ERPOs). Wintemute said he doesn’t use the term “red flag” since the term can have a lot of different meanings and can be stigmatizing.
  • Read the research on existing red flag laws, including about the potential to avert mass shootings and suicides.
  • Beware of misinformation about red flag laws, including critics who say they lack due process, which is not accurate. Another myth is that the laws will allow people with a grudge, such as an ex-spouse, to file a petition to take someone’s guns away. Law enforcement agencies screen tips that might lead to a petition, and judges consider evidence.
  • Do not frame the laws as exclusively about people who have a mental illness. Wintemute says that “people with mental health issues typically tend to be victims of violence more than they are those who perpetrate violence,” so it’s important to not generalize and stigmatize all mental illnesses.

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Amy Sherman is a staff writer with PolitiFact based in South Florida. She was part of the team that launched PolitiFact Florida in 2010 and…
Amy Sherman

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