BISMARCK — A bipartisan group of North Dakota lawmakers, police chiefs and education officials unveiled legislation Tuesday, Jan. 15, allowing officers to seize firearms from people deemed dangerous, a proposal that could face some pushback in the gun-friendly Legislature.
House Bill 1537 would allow family members and law enforcement to seek a court-issued “public safety protection order” preventing somebody from possessing a firearm for up to one year, although a judge could extend the order. A petition could be filed because a gun owner has committed or threatened violence in the past year, has been convicted of or arrested for domestic or sexual assault or has been cruel to animals, among other reasons.
Violating a protection order would be a Class A misdemeanor for the first offense and a Class C felony if it happens again within a year.
“Public safety protection orders save lives by enabling people to act before warning signs escalate into tragedies,” the bill’s chief backer, Fargo Democratic Rep. Karla Rose Hanson, said during a state Capitol press conference.
The top K-12 official in North Dakota, State Superintendent Kirsten Baesler, called the legislation “one of the most significant” ways policymakers could address school safety.
Thirteen states currently have a “red flag law,” according to Everytown for Gun Safety, with Florida enacting its version after last year’s high school shooting in Parkland.
North Dakota law enforcement officials described the “common sense” bill as a new tool to address people who haven’t necessarily committed a crime but are believed to be dangerous. West Fargo Police Chief Heith Janke said the number of suicide calls in his city rose to 144 in 2018, up 40 percent from the year before.
“There are times where people go through crisis in life, there’s this window of instability in their life where perhaps them having access to a weapon isn’t the greatest thing in the world,” Fargo Police Chief David Todd said.
Todd and Janke predicted officers would rarely use the new powers and said the bill provides adequate due process protections by requiring a hearing to determine whether a public safety protection order should be issued. It also allows firearm owners to seek an order’s termination.
Todd credited Hanson for building a “coalition of people from both sides of the aisle” to support the bill, including Senate Majority Leader Rich Wardner, R-Dickinson.
Still, the bill will face a Republican-controlled Legislature that easily passed a permitless concealed carry law two years ago. Later this week, a House committee will take up bills legalizing so-called “bump stocks” that speed up a gun’s rate of fire and to allow concealed weapon permit holders to pack heat in public buildings.
Bismarck Republican Rep. Rick Becker, the chief backer of the “constitutional carry” bill in the 2017 session, called Hanson's legislation a "huge gun control maneuver" taken "under the guise of having very good intentions" that's "ripe" for abuse. Sitting at his desk in the House chamber, Becker turned to a fellow Republican who sponsored the bill and teasingly asked how "the gun-grabbing" was going.
Catherine Mortensen, a spokeswoman for the National Rifle Association, said the organization "supports risk protection orders that respects the due process of rights and ensures those found mentally ill receive the care they need."
"Most of the red flag laws passed last year, unfortunately, do none of that," she added in an emailed statement.
Wardner said the bill takes a proactive approach to public safety and is “pro-gun” because it could help prevent mass shootings that spur support for firearm restrictions.
“I don’t think it conflicts with the right to own firearms at all,” he said. “We’re giving our law enforcement an opportunity to save lives.”