Raise a Red Flag: A new public health tool to prevent gun violence
In the midst of the deep sadness for the lives lost following a tragic event, public or private, our thoughts often question the possibility of a different fate. The tragic deaths that occurred in the Capital Gazette’s newsroom on June 28, 2018 are no exception. Could they have been prevented? While it is painful to even speculate “what if?,” the perpetrator that murdered five people acted less than six months before a new Maryland “red flag” law (HB 1302) takes effect in October 2018.
Similar to many laws enacted all across the country after the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting in Parkland, Florida, it allows for certain persons, e.g., spouses, mental health professionals, and law enforcement, to petition the Maryland Circuit or District Court for an extreme risk protective order. The court order temporarily restricts a person’s access to guns if they are found to be a risk to themselves or others.
Maryland State Del. Geraldine Valentino-Smith said she crafted HB 1302, the so-called “red flag” bill, to prevent the kind of mass shooting that took the lives of five journalists and gravely wounded several others. While there is no way of knowing for certain whether the Capital Gazette gunman’s actions could have been prevented, the perpetrator’s longstanding grudge against the newspaper and harassment conviction might have triggered action under the new “red flag” law and prevented this tragedy.
These tragic deaths are a part of the nearly 100 firearm-related deaths that occur each and every day in the US. All too frequent headlines shout aloud the news of heart-wrenching, horrific mass shootings at concerts, nightclubs, and in schools. Many more gun-related deaths occur in homes from self-harm, domestic violence, by curious children playing with loaded guns, and on our neighborhood streets all across the country every single day. Gun violence in America is an epidemic that threatens us all. The challenge is to stop this epidemic as we have with cholera, polio, HIV, Ebola, tobacco, automobile injuries, and lead poisoning. We must apply all of the public health tools available to us to prevent gun violence. Among them is citizen engagement.
"If you see something, say something" flashes across highway message signs and other forms of mass communication devices in the post 9/11 era. The alert is designed to remind us to pay attention to our surroundings and report suspicious activity to local law enforcement. Assisting law enforcement focused on preventing terrorism has not only become common practice, it is an essential adjunct to help police identify suspicious acts and terrorism-related activities. Answers to the questions - Who? What? When? Where? and Why? are key components of the "If You See Something, Say Something®" national cause. Originally begun by the New York Metropolitan Transportation Authority, it is now a nationwide campaign of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.
Committing gun violence, as with other crimes, involves means, motive, and opportunity. The ability of the defendant to commit the crime – means; the reason the defendant committed the crime – motive; and, whether the defendant had the chance to commit the crime – opportunity -- articulates a causal chain of events for an untoward outcome. Similar to how British physician and epidemiologist John Snow removed the water pump handle (the means) to prevent the spread of cholera from contaminated water in London in the 1850s, a public health prevention approach directs an intervention at any point in the means, motive, and opportunity sequence. Today "red flag laws" add an explicit component: "do something" – report suspicious or concerning behavior to authorities and seek an extreme risk protective court order to temporarily restrict a person’s access to guns if they are found to be a risk to themselves or others. Removing the means - the weapon, from the causal crime sequence by raising a red flag – a lawful intervention initiated by civic engagement -- will help disarm a potential life threatening circumstance and prevent fatal harm by firearms.
Woodie Kessel, MD, MPH
Assistant Surgeon General, USPHS, (Ret)
Professor of the Practice, School of Public Health, University of Maryland