Senate legislation on gun violence is likely to include “support for crisis intervention,” which will mean funding and incentives for states to implement extreme risk protection orders, also known as ERPOs or “red flag” orders. This policy compromise could save lives.
We are part of a team from eight universities, funded by the National Collaborative on Gun Violence Research, that is analyzing ERPO petitions across six states. Our preliminary findings show the scale of mass-shooting threats is larger than we could have imagined. We found that 9.5% of orders are for mass-shooting threats—that’s 626 cases from 2013-20 in which there’s a credible threat presented to a judge.
We also found that when a specific location was included in the threat, schools were the most likely target. We found that of those 626 cases of credible mass-shooting threat, 21% were targeted at K-12 schools. The mean age of the people who made the mass-shooting threats targeting schools was 20.
Even if only a small percentage of threats actually become mass shootings, ERPOs could save hundreds of lives, avoiding countless tragedies and heartbreak and restoring trust in a system that has long struggled to balance civilian firearm ownership with public safety. According to our research, ERPOs have had real preventive impact.
We looked through many ERPO files with cases of people who were clearly in crisis and should not have had access to a firearm. In one example an adult man in Florida planned to shoot his mother, “shoot up” a middle school and then kill himself. The school went on lockdown when he arrived after receiving word of the threat from law enforcement. Police were called to the scene and a potential mass shooting was averted. Law enforcement was subsequently able to obtain an order to recover the disturbed man’s guns and prevent him from purchasing a new firearm for at least a year.
Mass shooters tell someone about their plans in nearly half of all cases. More than half of perpetrators of mass shootings exhibit warning signs such as agitation, abusive behavior, depression, mood swings, an inability to perform daily tasks, and paranoia. But ERPOs exist in only 19 states and the District of Columbia, and many states don’t have the resources to implement them.
ERPOs may not be able to stop all mass shootings everywhere, but they do give courts and law enforcement a fighting chance to identify people who may pose a danger to the community. We urge Congress to approve the Senate compromise quickly and ensure ERPOs can be implemented in states that have such laws.
Ms. Zeoli is a professor of criminal justice at Michigan State University. Ms. Frattaroli is a professor at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.
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