The Corner

Law & the Courts

Before Mass Shootings, the Red Flags Fly

A police officer secures the area with a police cordon after a mass shooting at a Walmart in El Paso, Texas, August 3, 2019. (Jose Luis Gonzalez/Reuters)

As the debate continues to rage over red flag laws, it’s important to understand that warnings are the norm, not the exception, prior to mass shootings. A recent Wall Street Journal essay about the prevalence of mental health problems in mass shooters contained these rather stunning statistics:

In 2018 the Federal Bureau of Investigation released a report titled “A Study of the Pre-Attack Behavior of Active Shooters in the United States Between 2008 and 2013.” It reported that 40% of the shooters had received a psychiatric diagnosis, and 70% had “mental health stressors” or “mental health concerning behaviors” before the attack.


Most recently, in July 2019, the U.S. Secret Service released its report “Mass Attacks in Public Spaces—2018.” The report covered 27 attacks that resulted in 91 deaths and 107 injuries. The investigators found that 67% of the suspects displayed symptoms of mental illness or emotional disturbance. In 93% of the incidents, the authorities found that the suspects had a history of threats or other troubling communications. The results were similar to those of another study published by the Secret Service on 28 such attacks in 2017. (Emphasis added.)

Yes, we have a problem with untreated mental illness. We also have a problem with both an inability and unwillingness to respond to the red flags that wave in our faces. We can’t look at the facts above and simply say that the police or family members should do a better job in the face of warning signs if there is no legal mechanism in place for them to do that better job. And, often, even if the police can do better, families often have no recourse when they drop the ball.

Well-drafted red flag statutes will close that gap, without denying any person due process and without creating obvious incentives for abuse. We know the patterns of mass killers, and it’s worth responding to those patterns with a precisely targeted law.

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