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Why Indiana's Red Flag Law Did Not Prevent FedEx Mass Shooting

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

After a 19-year-old killed eight people at a FedEx facility in Indianapolis last week, some gun control advocates used it as a way to argue for red flag laws. But Indiana does have a red flag law. It's a measure to remove guns from a person deemed a risk, and it's one of the oldest such laws in the country. And in this case, it didn't work. Jill Sheridan of member station WFYI reports.

JILL SHERIDAN, BYLINE: It was last year when a mom was so concerned that her son would try to harm himself that she contacted authorities. That call and his stay at a mental health facility for a few hours led to the seizure of a shotgun owned by 18-year-old Brandon Hole. Because the family willingly gave up the weapon and no one contested the seizure, a red flag petition was never filed in court, which allowed him to still purchase guns. Marion County prosecutor Ryan Mears says he's been outspoken about the law's shortcomings.

RYAN MEARS: I think people hear red flag, and they think it's the panacea to all these issues. It's not. What it is is a good start where there's a number of loopholes in the practical application of this law.

SHERIDAN: The office doesn't have much time, only 14 days, to build and file a case, and a lack of access to mental health records restricts that process. Indiana adopted one of the country's first red flag laws after an Indianapolis police officer was killed by a man whose guns had been returned to him by police after a mental health crisis. Moms Demand Action founder Shannon Watts says Indiana's law is no longer up to date with other newer versions.

SHANNON WATTS: It's imperfect. It's one of the oldest in the country. It was passed in 2005, so the modern red flag laws are different. They're more fulsome. They're more comprehensive.

SHERIDAN: Nineteen states and Washington, D.C., now have some sort of red flag law. Many of those have been enhanced to allow family members to petition a seizure or close loopholes where people can still purchase guns. Shannon Frattaroli teaches at Johns Hopkins University and is a leading researcher on this issue. She says the case in Indiana is a failure of implementation because it never went to court and a judge didn't make a decision whether the gunman was dangerous, barring him from purchasing firearms. She says better awareness within the criminal justice system about how to use the law is needed.

SHANNON FRATTAROLI: Have the support and infrastructure in place to assure that they are used correctly. So implementation is really key, and it's something that we just don't pay enough attention to.

SHERIDAN: The Indiana legislature strengthened the law in 2019 to add stricter felony charges for someone who sells guns to a person who has been deemed a danger to themselves or others. Prosecutor Mears says a better fix would be to allow for more time to build a case based on mental health history and whether that person truly poses a threat.

MEARS: This statute is the return of firearms as opposed to having a very thoughtful and careful review of someone's mental health history to determine whether or not they should possess a firearm.

SHERIDAN: But would it have helped at the FedEx shootings in Indianapolis? The gunman was only 19 and didn't have a documented history of mental health problems before last year. Police in Indianapolis have said the investigation so far indicates the gunman engaged in online white supremacy activity. Four of the eight people killed were from the Sikh community in Indianapolis, which is now calling for a racial investigation. Shannon Watts with Moms Demand Action says red flag laws can work, but in the midst of record levels of violence, action is needed now.

WATTS: We know the pandemic exacerbated gun violence. Gun violence is essentially an epidemic within a pandemic.

SHERIDAN: In a recent call for executive action, President Biden included the need for comprehensive red flag laws.

For NPR News, I'm Jill Sheridan in Indianapolis.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE LAST SIGHS OF THE WIND'S "PHOBIA") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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