After a white supremacist discussed plans on Facebook for a mass shooting at a synagogue, police in Washington used a new law to quickly seize his 12 firearms, long before he was convicted of any crime.
But when a Tennessee father became alarmed about his son after receiving a suicidal text message, he said the police determined they could not take his son's guns away. A few months later, the man showed up at a church and shot seven worshippers one Sunday morning, killing one.
Family members and police routinely face agonizing decisions when otherwise lawful gun owners reveal an impulse to harm themselves or others, and more states are enacting laws that let authorities take away their weapons.
With bipartisan support in many cases, 17 states and Washington, D.C., have now passed “red flag laws” that allow the court-ordered removal of guns from people who are considered to be dangerous.
The back-to-back shootings that killed 31 people this month in Texas and Ohio have given new momentum to proposals pending in several other states and to a plan in Congress to provide grant money to states that adopt such measures.
In a rare victory for gun control advocates, the laws have spread since the February 2018 shooting that killed 17 students and staff members at a high school in Parkland, Florida. New York's new law took effect Saturday, while New Jersey's begins Sept. 1.
The proliferation of such laws comes despite opposition from gun rights activists and others who say the measures go too far.
Since most of the laws are new, research on their effectiveness is limited. A study published last year estimated that the two states with the longest-standing laws, Connecticut and Indiana, may have had 500 fewer gun suicides over a decade as a result of the measures.
Another study estimated that Connecticut, which adopted its law in 1999 after a mass shooting at the state lottery office, prevented one suicide for every 10 to 20 people subjected to gun seizures.
A study published this week about California's law found 21 examples in which people who had threatened public shootings were successfully disarmed.
In jurisdictions where red flag laws have been aggressively enforced, officials say the measures have likely prevented some suicides, workplace shootings and domestic killings.
“I'm convinced that having this powerful tool gives our communities the ability to step in and prevent some tragedies from happening,” said Mara Elliott, the city attorney in San Diego, where more than 300 gun violence restraining orders have been issued in less than two years. “Given the numbers that we are seeing, I think that's startling.”
She said the orders have been used to protect people from “all walks of life,” including students, employees, intimate partners, parents and children.
Those disarmed by red flag orders include a man who made online threats of a mass shooting at a gay bar, a man who told a family member he was going to kill Muslims, and a man who made disturbing statements about guns and immigrants.
In Florida, courts have granted more than 1,800 risk protection orders since its law passed in March 2018, data shows. Other states report anywhere from dozens to hundreds of cases per year.
Critics of the laws say they can result in the seizure of guns from law-abiding citizens based on thin claims of danger or false and exaggerated allegations. While many police chiefs have publicly supported red flag laws, other law enforcement leaders contend that they infringe on constitutional rights and will create an expensive new mandate to store guns.