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Commentary

Commentary: A red-letter day

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Tuesday, Dec. 14 was the 9th anniversary of the Newtown shooting that took the lives of 20 first-graders and six educators. It was an appropriate day to consider what we can do to cut down on the number of people being harmed and killed all over our nation by people with guns.

The NRA says, “guns don’t kill people, people kill people.” Tragically though, too many people are killing people with guns. They can’t deny that.

While many laws have been proposed and passed to address this crisis, other than removing all guns from people who haven’t been carefully vetted and are willing to safely secure them, the best law we have may be the Red Flag law.

The law empowers the police to disarm a person for up to two weeks if a judge believes there is an imminent danger that person will use their guns to harm themselves or others. In California, it is known as the Gun Violence Restraining Order (GVRO) law. Only 19 states and Washington, DC have passed a form of this law.

Remarkably, two states controlled by Republicans have passed the law. Indiana and Florida, which did so after the mass shooting in Parkland at the Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School, which took 17 lives on February 14, 2018. Importantly, Fred Guttenberg recently told me in a Zoom conversation that, “If a Red Flag law had existed then, my daughter would be alive today.” The confessed Parkland shooter had spoken in advance that he had thoughts about using his rifle to kill.

It’s not only a way to prevent mass shootings, though. It prevents other kinds of gun violence, too. For instance, Richard Sherman, a star football player for the Seattle Seahawks and now the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, repeatedly threatened to kill himself. Sherman’s family asked for help under a Red Flag law in Washington state and the local police were able to take possession of four handguns and a semi-automatic rifle, defusing the immediate danger. Sherman has since received mental health counseling and resumed his football career without harming anybody.

There’s no way to know for certain that Sherman would have carried out his threats, but we know that the Red Flag law made it much less likely. However, had he lived in one of the 31 states that lack such laws it would have been a lot harder for families and public safety officials to keep Sherman and his family safe.

Thankfully, Virginia became the 19th state to pass this law in 2020. Yet, very few people know about the law in our state. That’s not surprising, though. A recent survey in California done by UC Davis Health, which has had its GVRO for about a decade and a half, found that two-thirds of Californians have never heard of it. Yet, unless people know about it, they are unable to use it.

That’s why Safer Country, the Alexandria-based gun violence prevention non-profit which I founded and run, decided to do something about that in Virginia. We initiated an effort to get Fairfax County to create and launch a public awareness campaign and, having been invited to participate in that process, we came up with the slogan, “Prevent A Gun Tragedy — Speak Up!” Our campaign’s website, which is still being developed, is fairfaxcounty.gov/topics/red-flag.

Now, the challenge. The campaign began on Dec. 13. It was a red-letter day because everyone at our kick-off press event, from the chairman of the board of supervisors to the commonwealth’s attorney, knew that we have the chance to save lives. Fairfax County has a million people, but in a year and half, Virginia’s Emergency Substantial Risk Order (ESRO) law has only been sought 34 times, all by law enforcement. We can only go up.

Still, we are going to need to be creative to get the word out in a way that people will hear us. It helped that we got a spate of publicity that day. Yet, it will take much more than that to engage the people who are most in jeopardy. Given the stakes though, we are determined to do all we can, and we’ll welcome all the help we can get. Together, we can create a safer country but, for now, we’ll more than settle for a safer county.

Paul A. Friedman, JD, is the founder/executive director of Safer Country (safercountry.org), an Alexandria, Virginia-based gun violence prevention nonprofit working to keep guns out of unsafe hands.

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