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'Red-flag' law sought in Nebraska to allow authorities to temporarily take away guns

'Red-flag' law sought in Nebraska to allow authorities to temporarily take away guns

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LINCOLN — A Lincoln state senator plans to offer a bill this year that would allow authorities to temporarily take guns away from people suspected of being dangerous.

State Sen. Adam Morfeld said he will introduce “red-flag” legislation as a way to “keep our families safe from gun violence.” He said the proposal grew out of talks with law enforcement and an interim study on school safety.

“People that have mental health issues and have been proven violent should not have firearms,” he said.

But a western Nebraska colleague expressed skepticism about whether the approach would adequately protect gun owners’ rights.

“I would have to take a really hard look at this,” said Sen. Tom Brewer of Gordon.

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“Red flag” laws gained widespread attention last year after Nikolas Cruz mowed down 14 students and three teachers at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, in February.

Reports later showed that there had been multiple warning signs about the 19-year-old Cruz.

They included calls from family and friends to 911 reporting violent assaults, tips to law enforcement about Cruz putting guns to people’s heads and an online comment in which Cruz said he was “going to be a professional school shooter.”

In the wake of that shooting, at least two dozen states began looking at an approach to preventing gun violence pioneered in Connecticut in 1999.

The approach aims at getting firearms away from people who show signs they might use the weapons for mass shootings, suicides, terrorism or other gun violence. Thirteen states, including Florida, now have such laws.

Typically, the laws allow law enforcement or prosecutors to go to court for an order preventing a dangerous person from possessing or purchasing firearms. Some states also allow family or household members to seek such orders.

The orders may be called extreme risk protection orders or risk warrants. The orders can be issued on an emergency basis and last for a set period of time, usually a few weeks up to one year.

Most critically, they allow police to remove guns from a person’s home.

In Nebraska, federal and state laws now bar some people from possessing or purchasing firearms, but only if they have been committed for mental health treatment, judged mentally incompetent, convicted of a felony or misdemeanor domestic violence or are knowingly violating a protection order.

Red flag laws have a broader reach. They do not require that a person be diagnosed with a mental illness, let alone be committed for one, or have a criminal conviction.

The Connecticut law, called a risk warrant law, was passed after a man who had previously attempted suicide and was being treated for depression used a gun and a knife to kill four colleagues and himself.

California passed an extreme risk protection order law in 2014, after a 22-year-old killed six people in a shooting in Isla Vista, California. The man’s parents had tried to alert law enforcement about his behavior, but authorities could not intervene because the man had no criminal record or history of mental health commitment.

The Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, named for former Arizona Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, who was injured by a mass shooter, is pushing the approach.

“This vital tool saves lives by allowing the people who are most likely to notice when a loved one or community member becomes a danger to take concrete steps to disarm them,” the center said.

According to the center, California’s law has been used to disarm domestic abusers, individuals on the FBI’s terror watch list and suicidal people. The day after Vermont’s law took effect, it was used against an 18-year-old who kept a diary detailing his plans for a mass shooting at a high school.

But a Maryland case ended with violence when law enforcement showed up to collect one man’s guns, pursuant to a court order. The man came to the door brandishing a gun. Officers ended up shooting and killing him.

The National Rifle Association has taken a position supporting risk protection laws to prevent “truly dangerous individuals from accessing firearms,” but only if the laws include due process to protect gun owners’ rights and measures to ensure treatment for those with mental illnesses.

“Most of the red flag laws passed last year, unfortunately, do none of that,” said Catherine Mortensen, an NRA spokeswoman. “Not only do they fail to provide any sort of mental health treatment, but they allow the state to deny law-abiding gun owners their due process” rights.

“If the state can deny due process to these law-abiding residents, then what’s to stop them from denying any right to any group of people?” she said.

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Martha Stoddard keeps legislators honest from The World-Herald's Lincoln bureau, where she covers news from the State Capitol. Follow her on Twitter @StoddardOWH. Phone: 402-473-9583.

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