A new paper published this week in Injury Epidemiology suggests that extreme risk protection order (ERPO) laws – otherwise known as red flag laws – will discriminate disproportionately against people of color.
The paper’s author, Duke sociologist Jeffrey W. Swanson, argues that saving lives shouldn’t be the only metric in determining whether or not red flag laws constitute good public policy.
“Is it possible that implicit racial bias could infect ERPO petitions, the court’s decisions to grant them, or the behavior of the police in carrying them out? If that turned out to be true, how might it recast the evidence that ERPOs save lives?” he asks.
Swanson is careful to point out that not enough data has been collected on red flag laws to form any definitive conclusion, but he nonetheless cites a red flag study from Seattle that found black people were overrepresented in gun removal orders by a factor of nearly 2 to 1 compared to their share of the county population (12.0% vs. 6.9%).
While white people were also overrepresented (74.7% vs. 66.9%), the disparity in the black community was proportionally much greater.
He also cited a study he had conducted in Marion County, Indiana, that found that a significantly higher percentage of nonwhite individuals failed to appear at a scheduled court hearing to seek the return of their guns, and thus lost their guns by default (63% vs. 51%; p < 0.05).
Swanson is no gun rights proponent. He worries at one point in the paper that right-wing politicians will use his findings to discredit red flag laws, which he believes save lives.
Still, he notes the racist roots of gun control laws in the United States and urges readers to stop oversimplifying the gun control debate by considering the “complex social pathologies around gun violence.”
“The history of gun control laws in the United States (as with the history of every other social institution in this country) is intertwined with a legacy of white supremacy and racial injustice,” he says. “A century later, national surveys still find a substantial difference between racial groups in gun ownership and access, with about half of white respondents but only one third of black respondents reporting gun access at home.”
Swanson explains this disparity, in part, by citing a 1919 may-issue pistol permit requirement in North Carolina. The law allowed any county sheriff to deny a permit to a person he deemed not to have “good moral character,” which calls to mind today’s version of may-issue schemes that require “good cause.”
It’s doubtful that gun control advocates will halt their pursuit of red flag laws even if they are racially discriminatory. Swanson himself hypothesizes that red flag laws could “save many young black lives” even as they discriminate against them.
But at least someone is asking the question.