Virginia’s red flag law and the implementation—or not—of other gun safety measures in the state and around the country were explored by a panel of experts in early March. The program was cohosted by the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University and the gun violence prevention nonprofit Safer Country. The public event at Mason Square in Arlington, Virginia, drew some 50 spectators, including gun safety researchers as well as several members of Moms Demand Action activists.
David Hogg, a student survivor of the 2018 Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School mass shooting that led to the March for Our Lives rallies in Washington, D.C., and around the world, addressed the audience via Zoom from his dorm at Harvard where he is in his final semester as a political science major.
“I’m actually in the middle of midterms right now,” he said before debuting a speech he is developing. His remarks recounted the day in 2018 when 17 of his classmates were murdered and another 17 injured by a gunman; he then reflected on the trauma created by the thousands of other shootings ever year and the need to enact “common sense laws that we can and must all get behind,” he said.
Those laws include the Emergency Substantial Risk Order (ESRO) law—aka red flag law—which permits law enforcement to take action when there appears to be an imminent threat. Virginia has the Red Flag law but Fairfax, Virginia, home to Mason, is one of seven jurisdictions in the commonwealth that uses the law, pointed out University Professor Faye S. Taxman, founding director of the Schar School’s Center for Advancing Correctional Excellence (ACE!), in her introduction.
A Florida red flag law, Hogg said, “is personally important to me, because my mother got a death threat from a person. We used the [ERPO] law that we created after Parkland to disarm the person that threatened my mom. The law we passed may have prevented me from having to bury my own mom.”
Other highlights from the conversation moderated by Schar School dean Mark J. Rozell and Safer Country Executive Director Paul A. Friedman included:
Sgt. Amanda Paris, Fairfax County Police Department and ESRO coordinator for the county: Her agency has confiscated more than 350 guns since passing the red flag law. “We’ve had cases where a friend called 911 one saying, ‘Hey, my friend just called me, and he is currently walking into a store where they sell guns,’ and [police] have actually stopped that person right at the [store] door—and they said that if they had access to firearms they would go ahead and buy one and kill themselves.”
Paul A. Friedman: “Guns are now the leading cause of death for children and teens,” he pointed out, adding that one million guns are stolen a year due, in part, to a lack of safe storage. “Many of those guns end up in the hands of children and criminals, yet Republicans have blocked efforts to pass laws to address this.”
Rodney Lusk, chairman of the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors, discussed the relatively new co-responding program by Fairfax County police to better handle police engagement with the public by pairing a police officer with a mental health specialist for calls that require mental health expertise.
“We can reduce the use of force and better protect the people in our community,” he said, adding that “when we talk about trying to reduce guns in our community, we have a voluntary program where individuals in the county can call the police department and ask if the police will come out and take a gun or ammunition.”
Fairfax County Commonwealth Attorney Steve Descano, a military veteran and former federal prosecutor: “Every ESRO and [Substantial Risk Order] is a potential life saved. That’s why raising awareness of these things is so important.” Descano described how he’s created a special team in his office to handle red flag petitions.
Attorney Sean Perryman, former president of the Fairfax County NAACP: Perryman shared his concerns about gun violence by the police and the lack of trust some communities, in particular the Black communities, have with law enforcement around the country.
“The thing that stands out to me most with the red flag laws is to make sure we have community trust, community engagement, that we’re always reaching out, and that we're building among activists.” He suggested that nonwhite citizens are less likely to use red flag opportunities due to trust issues with law enforcement and “there is a need to address this.”