McFeely: Red flag law is more accurately 'public safety,' not 'gun grabbing'

Fargo legislator's proposal would allow family, law enforcement to petition court to temporarily block firearm possession
State Rep. Karla Rose Hanson, D-Fargo, promotes her "red flag" bill while police chiefs and Senate Majority Leader Rich Wardner, R-Dickinson, listen at the state Capitol Tuesday, Jan. 15, 2019. John Hageman / Forum News Service

Let's try this again. A do-over, if you will, because Rep. Karla Rose Hanson's very reasonable bipartisan public-safety bill unveiled last week was immediately tossed into the right-wing food processor and came out looking like Barack Hussein Obama and the liberal government were coming in black helicopters to take your guns.

Words matter, and in this case the words attached to Hanson's House Bill 1537 were "gun-seizure" and "gun-grabbing." Even stories meant to be straight-as-an-arrow news accounts, like those put forth by the Forum News Service, were headlined with phrases like "firearm seizure bill."

So spooky. So scary. They're going to take your guns, North Dakota.

Except that, no, they are not.

Hanson's bill is more commonly referred to as a "red flag law," already in place in 13 states with promising early results, that would allow family members and law enforcement -- remember how conservatives always pledge to support law enforcement? -- to get a court-issued protection order that would block somebody from possessing a firearm for up to a year. Or more, if a judge deemed it appropriate.

The goal is not to confiscate guns, but to keep them away from people going through a mental-health crisis or high-stress situation that might make them a danger to themselves or others.

"This is about being proactive and saving lives," said Hanson, a Democrat representing Fargo's District 44. "Suicide is a significant problem in North Dakota. This bill would help address that. We've never had a school shooting in North Dakota and hopefully we never will. But wouldn't it be great if we passed this before we had one, instead of passing a law afterward."

Red flag laws have become more popular since a 2018 school shooting in Parkland, Fla., killed 17 students and staff. The shooter, 19-year-old Nikolas Cruz, exhibited warnings signs in the decade prior to the shooting -- red flags -- that weren't acted upon by family, friends and law enforcement. Laws like Hanson's proposal are meant to be a tool that might prevent a shooting.

Her bill is co-sponsored by eight Republicans, including Senate Majority Leader Rich Wardner, and one Democrat. The working group that helped craft it included West Fargo Police Chief Heith Janke, Fargo Police Chief Dave Todd and Cass County Sheriff's Capt. Dean Haaland, among many others. State school superintendent Kirsten Baesler appeared at a press conference announcing the bill and spoke in support.

This is not a bunch of East Coast or West Coast liberals storming your gun cabinet, as some legislators and media members would have you believe. The Trump administration supports red flag laws to help prevent school shootings and Vice President Mike Pence's home state of Indiana, hardly a Democratic bastion, has had a law similar to Hanson's proposal on the books for years. It was passed when Pence was governor.

"In those cases when we have no legal means to remove the weapon, the subject refuses to voluntarily relinquish their weapon and there are no family members willing to take custody of the weapon, this bill would allow us to remove the weapon from the individual while they are in a mental crisis to prevent them from committing a tragedy and becoming a statistic themselves," Janke said.

Janke cited North Dakota's suicide statistics: 55 percent of all suicide deaths in the state are caused by firearms and in 2017 the state saw an all-time high of 103 firearm deaths, 93 of which were suicides.

"Simply put, this bill is about saving lives and preventing tragedies," Janke said.

Early pushback against the bill, aside from snide comments from ultra-right wingers like Rep. Rick Becker of Bismarck about "gun grabbing," is focused on its constitutionality and whether due process is being circumvented.

As for constitutionality, 13 states have red flag laws. None have been deemed unconstitutional and case law thus far indicates their legality, Hanson said.

Due process seems to be a scare-tactic talking point, with wild what-ifs being spun about a disgruntled relative or spouse using the law to tell the cops to take away somebody's guns. That's not how it works. A red flag law is a simpler term for a public safety protection order, which requires families or law enforcement to petition the court to temporarily remove a weapon.

"The courts are involved every step of the way," Hanson said. "That ensures due process."

A judge must review an affidavit or testimony about a concern. That happens at a hearing where both the petitioner and the respondent may appear. The judge must determine if there is probable cause, including clear and convincing evidence, to issue a protection order for up to a year. It is a civil process, not criminal, so nobody's being accused of a crime or going to jail.

A hearing for Hanson's bill has not yet been scheduled and she has no idea the chances of it gaining traction in the Republican-dominated Legislature. Other GOP-led states have dismissed red flag laws, while lawmakers in more progressive places like Maryland say their new law is working as intended.

"We feel like we've forged some good partnerships and did a good job of coalition-building," Hanson said. "Our working group that wrote the bill represented a wide swath of interested parties like school safety, law enforcement, prosecutors, suicide prevention specialists, domestic violence. We feel like we did our homework and that this is a tool that could be used and would be effective."

And remember, there'll be no black helicopters. It's a public-safety bill, not a gun-seizing measure. Looked at that way, it's not nearly so scary.