ISIH S3 E27 / Gun Violence in America: The Devil’s in the Details: Red Flag Laws Part II

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Celine Gounder: Hi, everyone. Celine Gounder, here. I’m the host of “In Sickness and in Health.” We really appreciate all our loyal listeners, and I’m hoping you can help us grow this community even more. If you like our podcast, please nominate us for the Discover Pods Awards. Go to awards.discoverpods.com to submit a nomination. That’s awards.discoverpods.com. But be sure to do so by October 22nd! That kind of recognition will help us grow the show. Thanks for your support, and thanks for listening. Now, on with the show.

Celine Gounder: Welcome back to “In Sickness and in Health,” a podcast about health and social justice. I’m Dr. Celine Gounder. This season we’re looking at gun violence in America.

Shannon Frattaroli: A lot of times what we hear in the dialogue around gun violence prevention, and policy in particular, is that we can’t get anything done in this country. Look at the state level. Extreme risk laws are a great example of how the states have really taken the issue and acted in a very responsible and progressive way.

Peter Contos: Because there was no statewide training directive or any information published that said this is how you should carry out these orders, we’re kind of making the rules up as we go along.

Tami Tunnell: I have had conversations. I’ve had some who kind of get borderline with me, and oh, you know, “We’re not gonna, we’re not gonna enforce this.” And I’m like, “Really? Because it says that if you willfully and wantonly neglect to protect someone, you know, you can be sued.”

Celine Gounder: On our last episode we talked about red flag laws... extreme risk protection orders that allow authorities to temporarily remove guns from someone who’s a threat to themselves or others. 17 states and the District of Columbia have passed these laws. But having a law on the books and… how it’s working on the ground… are two very different things.

Kim Wyatt: There is the continuous need to educate law enforcement and families that is a tool to be used, because although many people voted for it… I think the vast majority of the public still does not understand how this how the extreme protection order can be a tool for their loved ones in crisis.

Celine Gounder: On today’s episode of “In Sickness and in Health,” we’ll look at three different states and the challenges they’ve faced in rolling out their red flag laws.

Celine Gounder: We’re going to start in Illinois.

Tami Tunnell: Oh, Chicago! No… there's a whole state other than Chicago.

Celine Gounder: This is Tami Tunnell. She grew up, as she likes to say, “downstate.” 

Tami Tunnell: Basically, it’s what we refer to living in the cornfields because once you get out of Chicago you get down… We have a whole lot of cornfields in the middle of the state. 

Celine Gounder: Tami says culturally and politically speaking, Chicago and the collar counties… the most heavily populated parts of the state… are a completely different animal from downstate Illinois. While the Chicago area is known for being diverse, Democratic…

Tami Tunnell: When you hit downstate you get more of a Republican flavor... and the joke about that is when they say downstate they mean south of I-80, which is very far north…

Celine Gounder: Tami works as the Downstate Coordinator for the Illinois Council Against Handgun Violence, and spends her days traveling all over downstate talking to residents about gun safety. More often than not, she’s talking to people with political views very different from her own.

Tami Tunnell: And it's really a lot of conservatives, lot of Republicans. My politics are conservative. I'm a hunter. I like to collect my firearms… I may be part of a gun club, or... I maybe a Nascar fan or… somebody that really takes their freedom seriously. 

Celine Gounder: She explains the new law and how it works.. Yes, it helps keep guns temporarily out of reach for people who are going through a crisis, and no, it does not infringe on your Second Amendment rights. But Tami, as you might imagine, has her work cut out for her. 

Celine Gounder: She says there’s this perception people downstate have, that Chicago and the surrounding counties get more money, more services, and more attention than downstate. And because Chicago and the collar counties have so many people…

Tami Tunnell: Usually when the state goes Democratic... it's the Chicago area that voted Democratic where everybody else might have voted Republican… and you have all these people down state yelling, but you know, I didn't vote Democratic.

Celine Gounder: This has led many residents downstate to start the “Kick Chicago Out” movement. 

Tami Tunnell: Let’s Kick Chicago out and make them be their own state.

A house resolution in Illinois is proposing to separate the city of Chicago…

Pushing a longshot plan to kick Chicago out of the state…

It’s something Congress has not done since Lincoln, himself, was in the White House. They’re calling it the West Virginia model…

Celine Gounder: Earlier this year, seven representatives in the state legislature filed a bill asking the U.S. Congress to recognize Chicago as the 51st state. Tammi says the momentum for the Kick Chicago Out campaign ebbs and flows over the years. But recently, there’s a related movement gaining traction downstate: the Sanctuary County Movement. But not the one you’re thinking of.

Cities and counties around the country have declared themselves sanctuaries for undocumented immigrants, limiting their cooperation with federal immigration policies. But now Second Amendment advocates are taking a page from the same playbook…

Becoming a gun sanctuary. That’s the norm for several counties in Illinois, like Jasper, Jefferson, Effingham…

A Metro East county is the latest place in Illinois to become a sanctuary for gun owners…

Most are rural counties and cities. We’ve been covering this movement for weeks, and most of the officials say they’re trying to send a message to state lawmakers…

Celine Gounder: Let me explain: The state of Illinois passed it’s red flag law in 2018. Immediately after that, sixty-two out of one hundred and three counties in Illinois… most of them downstate… proposed, and in some cases signed, non-binding resolutions stating they’re weren’t going to enforce any state laws they thought infringed on Second Amendment rights. 

Tami Tunnell: ...so many became… you know, we're a sanctuary, we’re a gun county sanctuary… we're not going to put up with this. Chicago is driving, you know, the politics, and Chicago is making these things happen, and Chicago is the reason we have the firearm restraining order… Not true… that was an effort that the legislature did, and it wasn't just Chicago. So I just think that we like to blame lots of things on Chicago. 

Celine Gounder: You may be asking, if the Illinois law already passed… why is Tami… traveling all over downstate trying to convince people it’s a good law? 

Celine Gounder: A little background here. Illinois is a state notorious for gridlock, known for not getting things done. Illinois’ law passed with a veto-proof majority, but it passed at the end of the legislative session. There was no plan for training police officers who may be serving these orders, no plan for how to get the word out in the community that the law was in place. Nothing.

Celine Gounder: This meant that by the time the law was set to go into effect on January 1, 2019, it was up to the people on the ground… judges, law enforcement officers, advocates... to muddle through on their own.

Peter Contos: Judges were very reluctant to issue these orders early on because of the potential liability of sending officers to that person's door and having that situation escalate into potentially a shootout…

Celine Gounder: This is Peter Contos, he works with Tami at the Illinois Council Against Handgun Violence. When the law went into effect, many in law enforcement raised their own red flags about it, saying there was little guidance and that it posed risks to those whose job it was to enforce it.

Peter Contos: If a judge says, "Hey, can you go serve this warrant?" and, you know, me being some law enforcement agency official, if I don't know what this order is or how it's best served, then you put me in a very difficult position.

Celine Gounder: Studies show that domestic or intimate partner violence situations are some of the most dangerous law enforcement officers encounter in the line of duty. Serving an extreme risk protection order puts police officers in similarly volatile situations… situations that can easily escalate. 

Celine Gounder: The irony, of course, is that… this only highlights why it might be necessary to serve the order of protection in the first place.

Celine Gounder: As part of her outreach work, Tami often brings up a domestic violence case from the 1990s, a case in Effingham County, which is, not coincidentally, a self-declared gun-sanctuary county.

Tami Tunnell: It's called Calloway v. Kinkelaar… Kinkelaar was the sheriff… the woman had gotten an order of protection against… I don’t think it was her ex-husband yet… but they were they were separated. They had a child in common, and she got an order of protection.

Celine Gounder: She had a domestic violence restraining order against him.

Celine Gounder: One day, he called her on the phone and began threatening her.

Tami Tunnell: ...he said I'm going to kill our daughter, I’m gonna kill your dad, and she called and made the complaint. They send a sheriff out by the house… So a sheriff's deputy went out to check the house.

Celine Gounder: But instead of knocking on the door...

Tami Tunnell: They just kind of drove into the driveway took a look and left because they didn't want to wake anybody up because it was early in the morning.

Celine Gounder: The man had been watching from inside the house… and when he saw the sheriff’s deputy drive away, he went to the restaurant where his wife worked and kidnapped her at gunpoint. Eventually the police caught up with them. The man shot himself. The woman was able to get away safely. But she sued the police department for the distress and trauma she’d been put through, and she won. The courts found the police department liable for failing to protect her.

Tami Tunnell: So I when I'm talking to people in that area, it’s like hey, do you remember that case?

Celine Gounder: Especially to people Tami thinks might be hesitant to serve these extreme risk protection orders… just as some were reluctant to serve domestic violence restraining orders back in the day.

Tami Tunnell: You don't want to be that person. You really don't want to be that case.

Celine Gounder: Advocates like Tami have taken on the role of helping law enforcement and local courts figure out how to carry out Illinois’ red flag law and of helping the community at large understand it.

Tami Tunnell: They look at me skeptically. I think they're scared of me sometimes… When they’re like, oh, okay, it’s that crazy lady who, you know, talks about gun violence.

Celine Gounder: But Tami knows from her thirty-plus year career working in domestic violence before this… that it takes time and hard work for laws like this to seem commonplace… routine.

Tami Tunnell: …it's really hard. I mean if you look at the state of Illinois, it's a large state. So, you know, our team has three of us... Sometimes I get tired of hearing myself talk. Okay, the umpteenth time I've said this… So getting those volunteers on the ground who can then keep spreading the word has been a huge help. We're not done yet, but we're on our way. 

Celine Gounder: We’re gonna leave Illinois for now, and travel east… to Maryland.

Shannon Frattaroli: Many of us in Maryland refer to it as Little America because in many ways we represent a lot of what the United States looks like. There's a tremendous amount of diversity.

Celine Gounder: This is Shannon Frattaroli, an associate professor at the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research.

Shannon Frattaroli: In terms of gun ownership, we have rural communities where gun ownership is quite high. We have urban communities where gun ownership is quite low…

Celine Gounder: Maryland has been on the leading edge of trying to strike a balance... between the need to protect the rights of gun owners in the state... and the need to keep people safe from the dangers and risks of guns. 

Shannon Frattaroli: Maryland, like many states… wound up passing a an extreme risk protection order law after Parkland…

Celine Gounder: Maryland passed its red flag law the summer of 2018, but the law didn’t go into effect until October. And in the meantime… there was another tragedy… this time… at home… in Maryland.

We’re coming on the air with breaking news. A shooting this afternoon in Annapolis, Maryland.

Celine Gounder: A gunman opened fire at the offices of The Capitol Gazette in Annapolis. Five reporters lost their lives… A gunman who’d made threats against the Gazette before… and who had a history of domestic violence… who might have been stopped if Maryland’s red flag law had been in effect at the time.

Celine Gounder: The media coverage of the tragedy also covered the new law, and many advocates believe that media coverage helped educate residents across the state. It’s part of the reason why roll out has gone so well in Maryland. But the law also got backing from important leaders in the state. 

Shannon Frattaroli: Sheriff Popkin is really, from my perspective… and I'm not exaggerating when I say this, Sheriff Popkin is the reason that we have… a vibrant functioning infrastructure in place that is making use of our extreme risk law.

Celine Gounder: The Sheriff was involved in the legislative process to craft the law, ensuring it made sense for law enforcement. And after the law was passed…

Shannon Frattaroli: Sheriff Popkin developed a training and went all over the state of Maryland and offered training to law enforcement in person to make sure that they were ready for the rollout of this law.

Celine Gounder: Shannon says these efforts, spearheaded by a credible and respected figure in law enforcement, were key to getting police officers on board. 

Shannon Frattaroli: I've heard from law enforcement who will say… I actually have people coming back to me and saying, you know, I want to apologize. I know I was terrible to you when you served that order, and I know I said a lot of things, and I called you a lot of names. But I'm six months out from that incident, and I'm looking back now, and I'm so glad that you stuck with me and that you intervened in the way that you did because I was in a bad place then… but six months later, I'm in a different place. … So I'm hearing from law enforcement who are saying, you know for the first time in my career, I feel like I'm not just cleaning up a mess.

Celine Gounder: They don’t have to wait for tragedy to strike before taking preventive, life-saving action. 

Celine Gounder: Red flag laws in Maryland and elsewhere are relatively new. But as more data is gathered, researchers like Shannon are looking across different states to understand how they’re being used in the real world… and what this can tell us about how to best implement them going forward. 

Shannon Frattaroli: I actually am working with the state of Washington and Seattle-King County and have spent a lot of time with the data that have come out of that state.

Celine Gounder: In one of these cases, folks called the police to complain about one particular neighbor, who was often belligerent and hostile. One day…

Shannon Frattaroli: ...they got a call from a neighbor saying that this person… had sort of escalated, you know, these interactions by coming out into the yard with a shotgun, pointing that shotgun at neighbors, and shooting the gun into the air.

Celine Gounder: Police arrived at the scene... talked to the neighbor who called... talked to the person the complaint was about… and verified that he indeed had a gun.

Shannon Frattaroli: …and they decided at that point in time that… the fact that this person had decided… In the course of the argument to, you know, take out a gun and shoot it in the air was enough information for law enforcement to say, you know, we're going to intervene in a different way.

Celine Gounder: The police officers went to court. They filed a petition. The judge found the evidence credible and issued an order.

Celine Gounder: There are also cases where it’s not the police filing for a petition, but a family member.

Shannon Frattaroli: A woman came before the court and expressed concern about her husband of many years who was increasingly upset and concerned. He had lost his job, was having trouble finding work, trouble supporting the family, and was drinking more. He had purchased a gun and had been quite explicit that he had purchased the gun because he didn't see a point in continuing to live.

Celine Gounder: The woman filed the petition herself. She was able to get the gun out of the home and help her husband through his crisis.

Celine Gounder: Having a community leader standing up for the law, as Sheriff Popkin did in Maryland, is key to getting law enforcement on board… knowledgeable about how to request these petitions, and comfortable serving the orders of protection. 

Celine Gounder: In Washington state, that community leader, has been Kimberly Wyatt. 

Good Morning Chairman Graham, Ranking Member Feinstein, and distinguished members of the Senate Judiciary Committee…

Celine Gounder: Kim Wyatt is a Senior Deputy Prosecuting Attorney with the King County prosecutor's office. Earlier this year, Kim testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee about a proposed national red flag law. In her testimony, she shared stories about the impact of Washington state’s red flag law.

Celine Gounder: In Washington, as in Illinois and Maryland, there’s been a longstanding political and cultural divide between urban and rural… between Seattle-King County west of the Cascade mountains… which leans more progressive… and east of the Cascades… which tends to be more conservative. But she’s quick to point out that Washington’s red flag law...

Kim Wyatt: ...it passed with almost 70% of the votes statewide. So that, obviously, encompasses many areas in eastern Washington as well.

Celine Gounder: Kim is part of a regional unit that assists law enforcement to carry out their duties under the red flag law. She works closely with the Police Academy to train officers on how to serve the extreme risk protection orders, and she works with advocates who help family members navigate the petition process.

Celine Gounder: Red flag laws are designed to look for the “cracks” people might fall through… part of Kim’s job is to look for those cracks... and close them.

Kim Wyatt: An individual was taken to a local hospital by his girlfriend who said that he was having fantasies of wanting to commit a mass shooting that would outdo Las Vegas. And for whatever reason this individual did not meet the civil commitment requirements.

Celine Gounder: The situation didn’t quite meet the requirements for the individual to be committed under the state’s Involuntary Commitment Act.

Kim Wyatt: ...but there’s still concern from loved ones that somebody's in crisis and has access to firearms.

Celine Gounder: In the past, there wouldn’t have been much law enforcement could do, but now that Washington had a red flag law… and police officers were aware of it...

Kim Wyatt: …law enforcement was able, in that particular case, to go in and also get an extreme risk protection order and secure the firearms that we knew that individual had.

Celine Gounder: In her Senate testimony, Kim talked about a high-profile incident that took place last year.

In May of 2018, law enforcement agency in King County received a report about a student, this was a university student, that was making threats to kill other students. Specifically he stated, “I could just kill you all. It would be easy to kill everybody.” And then he went on to describe what firearms he would use to kill them.

Celine Gounder: Law enforcement was able to take immediate action. They went to court, requested an extreme risk protection order, and secured the firearm. Eventually, the student in this incident was charged, but the red flag law restricted his access to guns before criminal charges could be filed… likely... preventing a tragedy.

Celine Gounder: Besides helping law enforcement figure out when and how to petition for an extreme risk protection order, or ERPO, Kim works closely with families to do the same.

Kim Wyatt: The vast majority have been filed by law enforcement, but there's been only a couple, I think two.... in 2018 in King County that were filed by family members. 

Celine Gounder: So why aren't more family members petitioning for ERPOs… are people afraid that they're going to basically piss off a family member…

Kim Wyatt: I think that is part of the issue that sometimes it's maybe not in their best interest to be the actual petitioner, but to allow law enforcement to kind of step in the shoes of that family member and to take on that burden and petition with the source of information coming from the family.

Kim Wyatt: I think the bigger issue that I know of is that families don't understand that this is an option. …when you know, our, our law passed there was no money for implementation… there was no statewide campaign or training for law enforcement that was done or public service announcements…

Celine Gounder: I guess one question I have is why does it matter who can petition for an ERPO? Because if you could just go to law enforcement… and then let them petition for an ERPO. Is there a specific reason family or healthcare providers or others should have that ability as well?

Kim Wyatt: Well, I just think sometimes, you know, folks that may want to petition or have sources of information… may not have the best relationship with law enforcement… or there could be a mistrust of the system… So I think any time we can create more points of access or entry and availability… so, you know, training clergy, training school counselors, training medical providers… Other sources of information where they can learn about this law, I think is really important.

Celine Gounder: And where exactly can someone get information about red flag laws? And other resources for gun safety and suicide prevention? You might be surprised. That’s next time... on In Sickness and In Health.

Celine Gounder: For more information about Extreme Risk Protection Orders… how they work… and how to implement them… check out the Johns Hopkins’ website: americanhealth.jhu.edu/implementERPO.

Celine Gounder: If someone you know is in crisis or thinking of hurting themself:

  • Do not leave them alone.

  • Remove any firearms, alcohol, drugs or sharp objects that could be used in a suicide attempt.

  • Take them to an emergency room or seek help from a medical or mental health professional.

  • Call the U.S. National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-TALK (8255).

  • Or text the Crisis Text Line at 741-741.

  • Another resource for LGBTQ youth is the Trevor Project’s Lifeline at 866-488-7386.

Celine Gounder: Today’s episode of “In Sickness and in Health” was produced by Virginia Lora and me. Our theme music is by Allan Vest. Additional music by The Blue Dot Sessions. If you enjoy the show, please tell a friend about it today. And if you haven’t already done so, leave us a review on Apple Podcasts. It helps more people find out about the show! You can learn more about this podcast and how to engage with us on social media at insicknessandinhealthpodcast.com. That’s insicknessandinhealthpodcast.com. I’m Dr. Celine Gounder. This is “In Sickness and in Health.”