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The scene on Tuesday morning more closely resembled a sold-out event than a hearing of the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee. Starting around 8 a.m., volunteers and activists, most of them women in red Moms Demand Action shirts, lined up in the Senate hallway for a chance to hear the committee discuss extreme-risk protection orders, commonly known as red-flag laws. Those who were relegated to overflow watched the livestream on their phones.
The reason they were there so early and clamored to get in is because a hearing like this in a GOP-controlled Senate is incredibly rare. But committee chair Sen. Lindsey Graham, a Republican, has shown interest in at least discussing these laws, and has worked with Democratic Sen. Richard Blumenthal on a piece of legislation, although nothing has come of it.
Extreme-risk protection orders allow family members and law enforcement to petition a court to temporarily take away firearms from somebody who may pose a risk to themselves or others. Fourteen states have passed these laws, nine of them plus D.C. since the Parkland shooting.
Some policy experts expect this to be an area on which Democrats and Republicans overlap, and there is high public support: A poll from Everytown for Gun Safety found that 89% of Americans support Congress passing a federal red-flag law, including over 80% of Republicans and gun-owners. Both parties have introduced multiple pieces of legislation on this issue. Additionally, Democrats believe there is momentum for the law since the U.S. House recently passed the universal background checks bill, the first major gun bill in over two decades. Graham, however, has said he will not take it up in the Senate.
After the suicides of two survivors of the Parkland shooting and a father whose daughter was killed in the Sandy Hook massacre, these laws have taken on particular urgency. Sydney Aiello, 19, who survived the February 2018 shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, died by suicide on March 17. Just days later, another Parkland survivor, who has not been identified, died by suicide. Jeremy Richman, whose 6-year-old daughter Avielle was killed in the 2012 shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, CT, was found dead of an apparent suicide on Monday morning.
I have to be a voice for my family, because we've lost too many people we love to gun violence. Red-flag laws would save lives.
At least one study shows that states have used extreme-risk protection orders to help prevent suicides. There is also evidence, through studies in several states, that extreme-risk protection orders can prevent major attacks. In Maryland, activists worked to pass the bill last year, and it went into effect October 2018. The Montgomery County sheriff said that the state was able to intercept five cases of threats involving schools in the three months since the law went into effect. "We know that that bill is already working," Danielle Veith, Maryland chapter leader of Moms Demand Action, told Refinery29. "Serious threats for school shootings have been stopped. ... We really think these kinds of laws have bipartisan support, we have the numbers, and they're working."
Despite the widespread public pressure and enthusiasm, Republicans on the Judiciary Committee were noncommittal about any federal gun bills, voicing concerns about constitutional rights and due process. Graham said he prefers leaving red-flag laws up to the states. "I think passing a federal law is probably beyond what the market will bear," he said in his opening remarks, adding that the federal government could instead incentivize states to pass gun bills. "I think that's the best way, at least initially, to solve this problem," he said. Sen. Ted Cruz, one of the biggest recipients of NRA (National Rifle Association) money in the Senate, said red-flag laws could be "part of the solution," but that it's important to consider constitutional rights. (In a brief interview with Refinery29 outside of the hearing room, he expressed hesitation about voting for a federal red-flag bill and said it "depends.") The NRA has not supported any red-flag laws on the state level because of due process concerns. Experts from Everytown have found that red-flag laws have "robust" due-process protections.
Democrats, however, believe Congress is long overdue not only to discuss extreme-risk protection orders, but to pass a law. Senator and 2020 presidential candidate Amy Klobuchar, who has worked to close the so-called "boyfriend loophole" by introducing the Protecting Domestic Violence and Stalking Victims Act, met with Moms Demand Action volunteers during the hearing and praised their work. "I'm excited about it," she told reporters and volunteers. "It sounds like Graham has been open to this for a while. ... It's time to get something done on this, [and] I want to thank you guys." She then took a group photo with the volunteers.
Sen. Cory Booker, another 2020 presidential candidate, said in the hearing that he was tired of inaction. "I'm tired of seeing sidewalk shrines to dead children in my community...and people doing nothing to put gun-safety laws that we agree with in terms of getting it to a vote in this body."
Melody Geddis McFadden, a pastor from South Carolina and volunteer with Moms Demand Action, said she has met with Graham several times and appreciates that red-flag laws are at least on the table now. Gun violence has touched her family in a personal way. McFadden's mother was shot and killed in a domestic violence incident when she was 17. While she was not there when it happened, her three younger sisters — who were 10, 11, and 12 at the time — were. More recently, her niece, the daughter of one of her sisters, was killed by a stray bullet on the beach in Myrtle Beach, SC.
"I have to be a voice for my family, because we've lost too many people we love to gun violence," she told Refinery29. "Red-flag laws would save lives."
McFadden acknowledged that the uphill climb of being an advocate for gun reform when so many aren't listening can feel discouraging. But, she said, "To me, I think there's power and there's purpose in this pain. The pain's not going away, so since it's not going away, I'm going to use it for our good. Whenever we can do something to help somebody else, I'm willing. So if my story saves lives, I'm willing."
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