Op-Ed

‘Red Flag’ laws, a response to gun violence, are ripe for abuse

It is said that democracies are government by emotion and that republics are government by reason. Emotional people, and the governments they create, are tossed upon the waves and eventually founder on the rocks of reality.

Mass shootings are as terrifying as they are complex in their origins. There is no simple fix, and demagoguery is particularly unhelpful. Facts don’t help either. Pointing out that rural America is armed to the teeth and one of the safest places on the planet, or that gun violence continued to fall after the original “assault weapon” ban lapsed, is a waste of breath.

For centuries, the law has required the commission of a criminal act to deprive someone of their inherent rights through due process. One of these rights is the right to defend oneself with a gun. Another is a right to property without just compensation. “Red Flag” laws, which have passed in various forms in several states, permit the government to abridge those rights without due process. In fact, these laws seemingly violate multiple elements of the Bill of Rights.

A media frenzy and utterly irresponsible rhetoric by politicians (“Trump pulled the trigger”) has brought emotions to a boil, and even formerly rational people are giving red flag laws legitimacy. That President Trump is getting squishy is no surprise. That historically rational members of the Senate are getting squishy is disturbing. Andy Beshear, this state’s Attorney General and candidate for Governor, is foolishly calling for a Kentucky red flag law.

It is the inherent nature of laws and centralized power to encroach on freedom. We are now hearing much about the threats of “domestic terrorism.” How long will it take before the Patriot Act, which authorizes surveillance for international terrorism, is applied domestically? With the help of our technology, the Chinese are perfecting electronic surveillance, even to the point of monitoring people’s trash. We are next.

A virtuous society should prioritize mental health care above everything. Our mentally ill have been drugged, deinstitutionalized, and dumped on the streets. Opioids are killing far more of our citizens than guns. Our children are drugged and handed electronic devices to navigate the world. It is no surprise that antidepressants and social media figure prominently in the lives of mass shooters.

Red flag laws will cause people who need mental health care to avoid it. The Obama administration ordered people who were unable to manage their social security benefits to be added to the background check database. The VA also reports veterans unable to manage their financial affairs. A retired New York cop had his guns confiscated after seeking help for insomnia. A Maryland man was shot and killed after police knocked on his door in a predawn raid under that state’s red flag law. Expect more dead people, cops and citizens, on front porches.

The potential for abuse of these laws and the loss of freedom cannot be overstated. Anyone seeking to disarm someone else could file a report, even with safeguards to prevent it. The weak and poor would be especially at risk. Imagine a violent man wanting to disarm his ex-wife, or having your gun unfairly confiscated and being too poor to hire a lawyer to get it back.

John Adams wrote that the Constitution would only work for a virtuous people, and that it is folly to anticipate evil. It does not work for a people without impulse control. The purpose of the Senate was impulse control, but that was before the 17th Amendment when Senators were appointed. Still, Senators take an oath to defend the Constitution. Let’s hope they do.

Cameron S. Schaeffer is a physician in Lexington.

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