It’s Time to Retire the Term “Red Flag Laws”

Red Flag

[This post was originally published by the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence and cross-posted with permission.]

The catchy nickname stigmatizes individuals with mental health disabilities and mischaracterizes the way these evidence-based laws operate.

When our team first heard the term “red flag law,” we didn’t think much of it. It wasn’t our preferred name for the policy we had helped develop, but the substance of these laws was more important than what they were called. The policy was what mattered. The efficacy was what mattered. Saving lives was what mattered. What others were calling this law wasn’t a major concern. It wasn’t a priority. A user-friendly nickname for an effective policy wasn’t going to undermine our efforts to save lives. We didn’t think it was hurting anyone. Until we realized it was.

Since 2014, the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence (CSGV) has been a leader in drafting, passing, and enacting extreme risk laws — sometimes called “red flag laws” — which allow family members and/or law enforcement officials to petition a judge to temporarily remove firearms from individuals who are behaving dangerously. When we helped pass this law in California, it was a first-of-its-kind policy; now, more than a dozen states and the District of Columbia have extreme risk laws.

CSGV has been thrilled to see extreme risk laws gain bipartisan popularity and support among advocates, lawmakers, and citizens alike. But as these laws have become more mainstream, the question of what to call them has become more important — and the term “red flag law” has become more troubling. Over time — especially after many conversations with our allies in the mental health community — it has become clear that the term “red flag law” is not just a memorable, innocuous nickname. It is a term that has the potential to alienate marginalized groups. And by mischaracterizing the way these laws operate, “red flag” is a term that jeopardizes the policy’s impact.

These problems stem from the vague nature of the name “red flag.” Because the term is so indefinite in meaning, it is easy to corrupt. It is easy to mischaracterize the policy’s mechanisms and purpose — whether intentionally or unintentionally.

The term “red flag laws” gives the gun lobby yet another opportunity to change the subject from guns to mental illness .

For instance, citizens and legislators may believe the term “red flag” encompasses or refers to mental health disabilities. This association, which is often rooted in implicit bias, furthers the incorrect stereotype that mental illness is a significant risk factor for interpersonal violence. By facilitating this association, the term “red flag” stigmatizes those with mental health disabilities and misrepresents extreme risk laws, which were specifically crafted to assess risk without unfairly stigmatizing those living with mental health disabilities.

“When we say ‘red flag laws,’ we reinforce existing prejudice against people with mental health disabilities,” says Julia Bascom, Executive Director of the Autistic Self Advocacy Network. “It’s a phrase that brings to mind ‘dangerous people’ and other blurry categories. Who is dangerous? Who is a red flag? Our society already thinks of people with mental health disabilities as scary and dangerous — we too quickly make the leap from concerning behaviors to stigmatizing anyone with a certain label. Vague terms like ‘red flag laws’ make that leap even easier.”

As the National Rifle Association (NRA) and their allies consistently use mental illness as a scapegoat for gun violence, the term “red flag laws” gives the gun lobby yet another opportunity to change the subject from guns to mental illness — and convince the public that people living with mental illness are the real problem.

“Terms like (‘red flag’) reinforce negative stereotypes and historical prejudices towards people with mental illness. They conjure up visions of people who should be feared and avoided at all costs. We would never characterize any other health condition as a ‘red flag,’” says Ron Honberg, Senior Policy Advisor for the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI).

By focusing on mental health disabilities and perpetuating stigma, the NRA and others can avoid discussing the evidence-based risk factors for dangerousness — like a history of domestic violence — that actually characterize extreme risk laws.

“Instead of making that easier for (the NRA), it’s critical that we are explicit and deliberate with our language from the outset and keep the focus of the conversation where we want it — on the evidence, the real risks, and the solutions,” says Bascom.

Indeed, the term “red flag” does not describe the real risk-based, data-driven approach that extreme risk laws utilize. Instead, “red flag” suggests a subjective, arbitrary process based on intuition or a “gut feeling” rather than evidence. The gun lobby relishes using the term “red flag law” for this reason and has already seized upon and perpetuated this misconception, suggesting that extreme risk laws could be used to seek revenge on an individual even in the absence of evidence to suggest that the person poses a danger to self or others.

This could not be further from the truth. Extreme risk laws were originally modeled after the widely used Domestic Violence Restraining Order (DVRO), and criteria for firearm removal are based on data-driven behavioral risk factors for dangerousness. As the name suggests, extreme risk laws identify individuals at a heightened risk of violence using carefully crafted, evidence-based criteria. The term “extreme risk” is preferable to “red flag” because it focuses on the evidence and science of risk and dangerous behavior — all are central to the policy.

Extreme risk laws rely on concrete observations of dangerous behavior — not intuition, not a feeling, and not a diagnosis. Though it is catchy, the term “red flag laws” does not accurately describe what these laws do. It does not do the policy justice. It allows the gun lobby and their allies to distort and misrepresent these laws. And it perpetuates stigma and reinforces misconceptions about people with mental health disabilities.

As a movement, the success of extreme risk laws is at the forefront of our collective agenda. The steps we take to achieve our goals must be bold. Our vision must be clear and articulated in language that is descriptive and accurate — not vague, muddied, or easily corrupted. We must recognize how our movement has historically excluded or harmed various marginalized groups. We must take steps to correct our behavior. The words we choose are one step.

For the inclusivity of the gun violence prevention movement, for the future success of extreme risk laws, for our commitment to truth and accuracy, it is time to retire the term “red flag laws.”