Lee Wagner, a Marine Corps veteran and suicide intervention specialist, has spent the past six years helping fellow veterans process the trauma of their combat experiences, with an eye toward preventing them from taking their own lives. Like many of his peers, Wagner is a gun owner.
In recent months, Wagner has pushed Pennsylvania state lawmakers to pass a bipartisan-backed extreme risk protection order bill. So-called red flag laws temporarily remove firearms from those who may be a harm to themselves or others, and they are lauded by public health experts, law enforcement officials and gun safety advocates. At least eight other states also are considering red flag bills.
"When someone is having a really bad day," Wagner said, "we need to remove that tool of harm and keep them alive."
Passing these bills, however, may not be politically feasible this year: The Republican legislative majority in Pennsylvania and many other states won't even give them a committee hearing.
Most of the 19 states that have red flag laws adopted them after the 2018 school shooting in Parkland, Florida — a tragedy that could have been prevented if the state had a red flag law, proponents argue. While most measures were enacted in Democratic-dominated states, some passed with bipartisan support, including the one in Florida, where the GOP controls both the legislature and the governor's office. Republican governors in Maryland and Vermont also signed similar bills into law.
But that momentum has petered out as national pressure for gun restrictions has waned in the years since youth-led protests swept the country after Parkland. Every Democratic-controlled state in the United States now has a red flag law except for Maine, which has a watered-down alternative reached through a bipartisan compromise. In the rest of the country, midterm-focused Republicans are determined to galvanize their pro-gun base.
Passing red flag legislation will be a heavy lift in the remaining states, said Josh Horwitz, executive director of the gun safety nonprofits Coalition to Stop Gun Violence and the Educational Fund to Stop Gun Violence. In states without Democratic control of the legislature, Republican lawmakers are listening to the grassroots of their party who fear the government is trying to take their guns, he said.
"Of the states we think have an opportunity to move forward, there's no place where we can go, 'That's a slam dunk, that'll be easy,'" he said.
Under most of the laws, relatives, household members or law enforcement officers must petition a civil court to temporarily confiscate somebody's firearms. A judge weighs the evidence, including testimony from witnesses, before issuing the noncriminal order. Usually, the order expires within a year.
But gun rights advocates argue that red flag laws violate due process and infringe on gun owners' Second Amendment rights. And angry ex-partners and family members can easily abuse them to exact retribution, said Val Finnell, Pennsylvania director for Gun Owners of America.