Iowa Legislature is ignoring red flags

Debate on bill, amendments aimed at preventing gun violence denied

Wary lawmakers in Iowa and around the nation insist ongoing debate about gun violence should center on mental illness, and not guns. So why is legislation aimed at temporarily removing guns from people in crisis being ignored?

Iowa Rep. Art Staed, D-Cedar Rapids, made headlines this week for killing his own amendment, a red flag law he’d attached to a bill concerning mental health.

The bill, which came out of the House Human Resources Committee, added provisions for involuntary commitments and hospitalizations and provided rules about how behavioral health information is disclosed to law enforcement agencies.

Staed’s amendment would have allowed concerned family members and close friends to petition the court for a temporary weapons injunction against a person who poses a risk to himself or others.

Staed refers to this proposal as an “extreme-risk protection order,” but, nationally, these are known as red flag laws. They’ve been enacted in five states, and at least a dozen more are seriously debating them. Federal legislation also has been proposed to provide incentives to states that adopt these types of laws.

Laws vary slightly from state to state — some states allow only law enforcement to petition the court — but the process works essentially the same. Weapons can be temporarily taken from a person who is deemed at risk of violence, including self-harm. Within a mandated length of time, typically a week or two, a judge decides whether the weapons should be returned or if the temporary ban should remain in place. If the judge finds the person to be a risk to himself or others, weapons could be barred for that person for up to a year.

Common reasons for weapons being removed under this process in states that have red flag laws include escalating threats of violence, substance abuse, domestic violence and, of course, various mental health challenges.

Since many believe that if Florida had enacted a similar law, the tragedy at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School could have been averted, lawmakers throughout the nation are exploring such measures.

But not, it appears, here in Iowa.

Iowa Capitol Renovation
Renovation work on the Iowa State Capitol Building in Des Moines on Wednesday, May. 24, 2017. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette)

“I’ve received word this morning, over and over, that Republican leadership in the House has threatened to remove House File 2456 (the broader mental health bill) indefinitely unless I would agree to withdraw this extreme-risk protection order amendment,” Staed said on the Iowa House floor before making a motion to set aside his proposal.

The amendment wasn’t Staed’s first attempt to start a conversation around a red flag law for Iowa. On Feb. 1, Staed, Rep. Monica Kurth, D-Davenport, and Rep. Bruce Hunter, D-Des Moines, introduced House File 2180, “an act relating to the creation of an extreme risk protective order.” The bill was referred to the House Judiciary Committee and has not been touched since, although the committee met five more times before the funnel deadline, including the evening of the Parkland, Fla., school shooting.

HF 2180 was not even assigned to a subcommittee for further review.

Since pulling the amendment from the mental health bill, Staed also has attempted to introduce it alongside other legislation. When one such attempt was ruled not germane to the topic, Staed requested suspension of the rules so that his original bill could be brought to the floor and debated on its own merits. The request failed on a party-line vote.

Yet, it makes sense for family members and law enforcement to have a mechanism, when a potential shooter displays clear signs of posing an imminent threat to the public or himself, to try to remove guns from that person’s possession while respecting due process. Iowa voters need to ask why GOP leadership is refusing to have the conversation.

No, red flag laws won’t prevent every gunman or every shooting tragedy, but they can help. They create an opportunity to intervene before warning signs escalate into murder. They allow society to press a pause button, allow needy residents to seek behavioral health care and defuse potentially tragic situations.

Red flag laws are one of the few proposals that specifically address and work to prevent the roughly two-thirds of gun deaths in this country attributed to suicide — the most common and most deadly suicide method, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Suicide is the second leading cause of death among Iowans ages 15 to 34, the third leading cause of death among those ages 10 to 14, and the fourth leading cause of death among those ages 35 to 54. Overall, suicide is the ninth leading cause of death in Iowa; six times as many people die by suicide in Iowa each year than by homicide.

If wary lawmakers want to blame mental health for gun violence, red flag laws are how they can address the problem.

Americans and Iowans often have been cautioned, in the wake of incidents of gun violence, that it is “too soon” to discuss such mechanisms. When is it appropriate to discuss being too late?

This column by Lynda Waddington originally published in The Gazette on Sunday, March 4, 2018. Photo credit: Stephen Mally/TheGazette