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AP Exclusive: US ‘red flag’ laws little-used despite gun violence surge

FILE - In this image from a video feed from the Lake County, Ill., jail Robert E. Crimo III appears before Lake County Judge Theodore Potkonjak on Wednesday, July 6, 2022, in Waukegan, Ill. Crimo drew police attention three years earlier when he threatened to “kill everyone” in his house and officers acknowledged going to the home several times previously because of a “history of attempts” to take his own life. But Highland Park police never requested a gun surrender order, saying there was no gun belonging to Crimo to take away at the time, even though the law has a provision to block threatening people from making future purchases, too. (AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast, Pool, File)

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Investigative reporter Bernard Condon used exhaustive data gathering and analysis, as well as interviews with experts and authorities, to produce an exclusive, first-ever count showing states barely using the much-touted “red flag” laws that give them the power to take guns away from people who threaten to kill. The trend is traced to lack of awareness of the laws and outright resistance by some police to enforce them, even as shootings and gun deaths soar.

The story adds data and clarity to the debate over red flag laws, which are promoted by the Biden administration and gun-control advocates as the most powerful tools available to prevent gun violence before it happens. But as the story shows, such laws are only useful if they are actually enforced.

Assisted by AP statehouse reporters across the country, Condon quickly discovered that many states haven’t kept good records on the use of red flag laws. He was often forced to file Freedom of Information requests and press officials for weeks to get the data he needed — which may explain why no other news organization has done such a comprehensive review.

But getting those numbers — 15,049 uses of the laws in 19 states and the District of Columbia since 2020 — was just the beginning. Condon then had to analyze what those numbers meant and what effect red flag laws were having, if any, in the broader context of an uptick in gun violence that’s on pace to claim more 45,000 lives in the U.S. this year.

For that, Condon consulted more than a half-dozen leading experts on red flag laws who told him that the collective total was woefully inadequate to make a dent in gun violence, considering the millions of guns in circulation and the countless threats law enforcement officers encounter every day. “It’s too small a pebble to make a ripple. It’s as if the law doesn’t exist,” one expert told him.

Condon sought comment from states and law enforcement officers across the country, finding wide disparities in how the law is enforced, having more to do with the force of will of individual sheriffs and prosecutors rather than population, crime and other statistics. Poor awareness of the laws and how they can be used is a major problem, as is resistance from thousands of sheriffs across the country who consider red flag laws an infringement on Second Amendment rights.

Among his specific,significant findings:

— Florida led the nation with 5,800 red flag orders, due mostly to aggressive enforcement in a few counties that don’t include Miami-Dade and others with more gun killings.
— Several pro-gun states had relatively little uses of the law. New Mexico and Nevada reported only about 20 orders combined.
— More than a quarter of Illinois’ slim 154 orders came from one suburban county that makes up just 7% of the state’s population; just four orders came from shootings-wracked Chicago.
— New York saw a surge in red flag gun surrender orders — 779 — since the May mass shooting at a Buffalo supermarket in which the suspect was just missed by the state’s law because he was too young.

Condon’s story,accompanied by a graphic from artist Francois Duckett and photos edited by Patrick Sison,scored huge play both online and in print over the Labor Day holiday weekend, and was cited heavily with AP credit in several national newscasts.

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