The fact that Indiana’s red-flag law failed to prevent the mass shooting of eight people this month isn’t evidence that such laws don’t work. Rather, such laws must be logically constructed and consistently enforced. Creating a national red-flag law in conjunction with universal background checks, as President Joe Biden has called for, would be preferable to the current state-by-state patchwork of laws that, as the Indianapolis tragedy shows, are often too porous to be effective.
Red-flag laws allow courts to seize firearms from people deemed a danger to themselves or others, based on reports from police or family. More than a dozen states, including Illinois, have such laws. Studies show they significantly reduce gun deaths, especially suicides.
The 19-year-old gunman who killed eight people and himself at an Indianapolis FedEx facility on April 15 had come to the attention of police in March 2020, when his mother warned that he might attempt “suicide by cop.” Police confiscated a shotgun, but authorities didn’t follow up by getting a court order to prevent the purchase of additional weapons, as the law allows. Subsequently, the man legally bought the two semi-automatic rifles that he used in the mass shooting.
Authorities say they didn’t pursue the court order because they feared Indiana’s law didn’t give them enough time to make their case and that, if they failed, he would demand the return of his shotgun. But there’s a more fundamental problem with the law: Indiana, like Missouri, doesn’t require that private gun dealers perform background checks on buyers. Even if officials had gotten their court order prohibiting the shooter from buying additional weapons, there would have been nothing to prevent him from buying his guns from a private dealer, no questions asked.
The loophole is big enough to roll a howitzer through, and it may explain why gun-rights conservatives, who generally say they’re in favor of keeping guns away from the mentally unbalanced, nonetheless often have a hard time embracing red-flag laws.
Missouri Gov. Mike Parson is a case in point. At a meeting with urban leaders in November 2019, Parson said he supported the concept of keeping guns away from domestic abusers and others who might pose a threat. That’s the very definition of a red-flag law. But just a few weeks later, Parson backtracked and said he doesn’t support red-flag laws.
If asked, Parson presumably wouldn’t argue that those in the throes of mental or emotional breakdowns should have access to semi-automatic weapons. But the extremist dynamic that Parson and his party have forced on Missouri, allowing any adult to buy a weapon of war from any other adult — no background check or permit necessary — makes it logistically impossible to do anything about an unstable gunman until the carnage starts. A national red-flag law, bolstered by a national universal background-check requirement, would save lives.