What San Francisco teaches us about ‘Red Flag’ laws

Who decides what constitutes a red flag?

By on September 11, 2019

Connecticut Senator Chris Murphy (D) and President Donald Trump are in talks about gun reforms in the aftermath of several recent mass shootings, according to Politico. One proposal in particular that has been getting attention are “red flag” laws.

The premise of this policy is that many of these shooters signal, in some way, before their actions become a danger to themselves or others. Therefore, if such things could be reported, their actions could be prevented. A person who has a gun can be reported to authorities, and, after a process determines the claim has merit, their guns can be removed.

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All in all, it seems like common sense, doesn’t it? On paper, yes. In practice, the question is what exactly is the line that must be crossed before it is justified to remove somebody’s legally owned firearms. And that is where we run into problems.

On Sept. 3, the San Francisco city government voted unanimously to declare the National Rifle Association (NRA), as a domestic terrorist organisation. Why? After all, the definition of terrorism is “the systematic use of violence to create a general climate of fear in a population and thereby to bring about a particular political objective”, according to the Encycolopedia Brittanica.

The NRA is an advocacy group that supports a wide view of gun rights and the Second Amendment. They do not use or advocate violence to further their political ends. So how is this justified? Because San Francisco defines any action in which an individual “[intends] to endanger, directly or indirectly, the safety of one or more individuals” as with a gun as “terrorist activity.”

This is ridiculous on its face. People use all kinds of tools to commit wrong and illegal actions, including but not limited to computers, ropes, cars, knives, bottles, crowbars, etc. No serious person would attempt to conflate supporting the ownership of any or all of those items for support of illegal activity. And it is not just limited to the NRA either. As Henry Olsen of the Washington Post writes:

“While it states that the leadership ‘promotes extremist positions, in defiance of the views of a majority of its membership,’ it also states that ‘any individual or member of an organization’ commits a terrorist act by giving support to a group that this person ‘reasonably should know’ gives ‘material support’ to any ‘individual [who] has committed or plans to commit a terrorist act.’ It closes the noose around NRA members’ necks by stating that the NRA ‘promote[s] gun ownership and incite[s] gun owners to acts of violence.’ Congratulations, average NRA member: Your $30 one-year membership makes you a terrorist.”

With that in mind, ask yourself, if a red flag law is good for anything, wouldn’t it be good for removing guns from a domestic terrorist? And here, we have a city government that is responsible for governing millions of people is contending that supporting a wide view of gun rights makes one a domestic terrorist. One does not have to be a rocket scientist to see where this goes: anyone who the powers-that-be dislike will be defined as a domestic terrorist, and disarmed. Sure, the San Francisco local government does not have the power to do such a thing. But should we expect progressive Democrats in Congress or those running for president, to disavow this resolution? It is hard to imagine they would.

Does this make the case against all types of red flag laws? Probably not. It does mean that President Trump and Congressional Republicans should be exceedingly careful. San Francisco’s resolution has no weight of law at the federal level, but that is because of a lack of power, not will. It is not farcical to imagine a future Democratic president with Democratic congressional majorities taking a similar step. Republicans interested in passing a red flag bill need to take that possibility into account when writing it.

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