Everyone wants to stop dangerous people from getting guns. The hot new policy option before this committee is Red Flag laws, which take away the guns of people deemed dangerous to themselves or others. But there is a much more effective alternative already in place.
They are known as Baker Act statutes (Pennsylvania’s is called the “Mental Health Procedures Act”), and have been around since the early 1970s. They allow police, doctors and family members to have someone typically held in most states for a 72-hour mental health examination based upon a simple reasonableness test – little more than a guess or a hunch. The hold in Pennsylvania is up to 120 hours.
These laws focus on mental illness, and they require that the individual be evaluated by mental-health-care experts. If a person can’t afford a lawyer, a public defender is provided. While judges can involuntarily commit an individual they believe is a danger to themselves or others, there is a range of options they can take, with the threat that other options can be followed up with involuntary commitment.
However, instead of using these laws, 17 states have now adopted Red Flag laws, with 13 states passing them since the shootings at the high school in Parkland, Fla. While Red Flag laws are often discussed in terms of mental illness and they are frequently used in connection with concerns about suicide, only one state’s law even mentions mental illness and none of the states requires that a mental-health expert be involved in evaluating the person.
And, unlike Baker Act statutes, these new laws don’t offer safeguards, such as providing a public defender for individuals who can’t afford a lawyer or covering their legal costs. When faced with legal bills that can easily amount to $10,000 for a hearing, few think that owning a gun justifies these costs.