Washington Post Op-Ed: We Don’t Want Any Missed Flags in Virginia

I have run out of adjectives to describe mass shootings in our country and their maddening regularity: heartbreaking, terrifying, tragic. We have all used those words so many times that they almost lose their meaning. But there are two adjectives we don’t use often enough. Predictable — we know another one will happen soon. Too soon. And preventable — we can prevent mass shootings. We simply cannot grow so numb — or so duped by the National Rifle Association and Citizens Defense League and their “slippery slope,” “good guy with a gun” and “price of freedom” arguments — that we miss any opportunity to reduce and even prevent these horrifying events. We cannot ever accept this as normal. 

The recent shooting in Highland Park, Ill., was even more unsettling because it felt like something could have been done. Law enforcement officers had interacted with the shooter. He had made chilling threats. Red flags were obvious, but opportunities to act on the red flags and prevent the tragedy were missed.

And that is frustrating. Tragically, gut-wrenchingly frustrating.

We have a red-flag law in Virginia. We have since 2020, when the General Assembly passed and then-Gov. Ralph Northam (D) signed the law, and Virginia joined 18 other states and D.C. with laws that allow law enforcement officials to remove guns from someone whom a court has found to be a threat to themselves or others and, importantly, to prevent that person from buying or possessing any guns going forward for a prescribed, temporary period of time. In Virginia, it is called a substantial risk order, and it is saving lives.

According to the Virginia State Police, 385 risk orders were issued by courts in Virginia in the first 22 months it has been law, and they’ve been used in every corner of the commonwealth. Even in jurisdictions that had declared themselves “Second Amendment sanctuaries.”

As reported in the Wall Street Journal, a team of researchers from eight universities studying red-flag laws in six states found that 9.5 percent of the orders involved threats of mass shootings. And — I hope you’re sitting down for this — 21 percent of those threats were targeted at K-12 schools. That’s more than 130 threats to our kids’ schools across six states. And the average age of the people making those threats? Twenty. Years. Old.
Virginia was not included in that study because its law is too new, but there is no reason to believe our experience will be any different. The research shows that red-flag laws have, in the words of the researchers, “real preventive impact.”

So why no risk order in Highland Park? Illinois has a red-flag law. What happened, or didn’t happen?
We don’t yet know all the facts, but it appears that law enforcement or the family or both failed to use the red-flag law when the future shooter was clearly demonstrating that he was a risk to himself and others.
We cannot let that happen again. The recent bipartisan gun-safety legislation passed by Congress will, among other things, provide funding to states that have red-flag laws to train law enforcement officers and increase awareness by them and our citizens about such laws. We need to increase awareness that they exist and make sure people know how they can work with law enforcement to seek a risk order when they are concerned about someone who might be a risk to themselves or others.

​I hope Gov. Glenn Youngkin (R) — whose Republican allies in the legislature tried to repeal the red-flag law, and who has made clear his opposition to gun-safety reforms — will accept and use the federal money to increase the use of our red-flag law. I urge him to do so, and I hope all Virginians will let him know how important it is that Virginia use every resource at our disposal to fully implement our red-flag law. We need our state government and state law enforcement to be working with localities and local law enforcement to make sure Virginians know about this lifesaving law.

Let’s not miss any red flags in Virginia.