Note: This post has been updated with figures from Lamoille County.
It’s been almost five years since Gov. Phil Scott signed a package of gun bills into law on the Statehouse steps. One of them was a so-called “red flag” law, which allows police to temporarily take firearms away from people deemed to be an immediate risk to themselves or others.
This was a popular alternative to tougher gun restrictions, endorsed by quite a few Republicans including then-president Donald Trump. But how has the idea worked in practice?
Well, according to the Associated Press, not all that well. The AP reported that in many jurisdictions, red flag laws are so rarely used they might as well not exist.
AP found such laws in 19 states and the District of Columbia were used to remove firearms from people 15,049 times since 2020, fewer than 10 per 100,000 adult residents. Experts called that woefully low and not nearly enough to make a dent in gun violence…
In Chicago, the Illinois law was used only four times. New Mexico’s law was employed eight times. In liberal old Massachusetts, the red flag law was used a whopping 12 times.
It’s a different story in Vermont. But there are still questions to answer about our red flag law in practice.
According to the Vermont Judiciary, 161 “Extreme Risk Protection Orders” have been issued since April 2018, in 105 separate incidents. (In some cases, multiple ERPOs have been issued to the same person, either because the first order expired or there was new evidence of a threat.)
That seems like a significant use of the law, although the experts cited in the AP story wouldn’t speculate on an appropriate level of use. (Yes, I hear you gun-rights folks say “the appropriate use is ZERO.” We continue.)
But within that statewide 161 figure, there are big discrepancies that I can’t explain. Judiciary supplied me with a county-by-county breakdown, and I calculated the number of implementations per capita. The answers ranged from one in 815 to one in
11,500 infinity. That’s rather dramatic, no?
At the top end was Addison County, with 46 ERPOs and 37,471 residents. At the other end was Lamoille County, which has yet to employ the red flag law. (Population figures from World Population Review, which used US Census data.)
I can only think of two explanations for such a wide disparity. Either Addison County has an epidemic of extremely risky situations, or its law enforcement community is far more likely than others to use the red flag law. That’s a question worth exploring. Perhaps the Legislature will take the law’s fifth anniversary as an opportunity to look into its effectiveness and how it’s been applied from county to county.
Especially since the governor keeps insisting that we shouldn’t pass any more gun bills until we can figure out how well the 2018 laws are working. Maybe five years is a good sample size?
No other county came close to Addison in terms of using the law. The runner-up was Essex County, which issued three ERPOs in a population of only 5,842. That’s one in 1,947 residents, which is far from Addison’s rate. Bennington and Washington counties were in a virtual tie for third: Bennington at 2,671 and Washington at 2,721. No other county clocked in below 3,000.
At the low end, aside from Lamoille, we find Windham County with two ERPOs among a population of 23,092, or 11,546 residents per ERPO. After Windham is Franklin, with five uses in a population of 50,386. That’s one in 10,077. There are definite questions to be asked about how the bottom three counties use the red flag law, or should I say “fail to use.”
Other counties with relatively low rates of ERPO usage: Rutland at one in 7,545, Orange at one in 7,336, Orleans at one in 6,856, and (perhaps surprisingly, given its liberal reputation) Chittenden at one in 5,885.
The takeaway is that Vermont uses the law more consistently than many other states, but there are dramatic variances among counties that warrant exploration. The questions ought to start in the counties with rates above one in 7,000.
Here’s the entire list, as calculated by me. First number is ERPOs as reported by Judiciary, second number is county population, the third is number of ERPOs per capita.
Addison: 46 ERPOs, pop 37471, PC 815
Bennington: 14, pop 37,391, PC 2,671
Caledonia: 10, pop 30,085, PC 3,009
Chittenden: 29, pop 170,679, per capita 5,885
Essex: 3, pop 5,842, PC 1,947
Franklin: 5, pop 50,386, PC 10,077
Grand Isle: 2, pop 7,357, PC 3,679
Lamoille: 0, pop 26,239, PC infinity
Orange: 4, pop 29,345, PC 7,336
Orleans: 4, pop 27,425, PC 6,856
Rutland: 8, pop 60,358, PC 7,545
Washington: 22, pop 59,861, PC 2,721
Windham: 2, pop 23,092, PC 11,546
Windsor Unit: 12, pop 57,969, PC 4,831
Red flag laws violate due process. There are a few horror stories out there about vengeful ex-spouses and neighbors using them to get even with innocent people. Another chip chip chip away at the U.S. Constitution.
“A few,” eh?
Do law enforcement agencies collect data on the race / ethnicity of those these measures are used against? Other states have seen red flag laws used disproportionately against people of marginalized groups and were the state interested in tracking the effectiveness of these laws it would be another helpful data point to make sure we’re not giving LEOs another tool to use unfairly against BIPOC in Vermont.