Albany Notebook: Jury is out on state's red flag law

Joe Mahoney

ALBANY — Ask a roomful of people to clap their hands if they are against mass shootings. Everyone will clap.

It's like being for Mom, the flag and apple pie.

Which gets us to the so-called red flag laws now on the books in New York and 15 other states.

Such laws are designed to take firearms away from mentally unstable individuals. In New York, the process can be initiated via a court petition filed by family members, school officials or police if they believe a person with guns is a danger to himself or others. The goal is laudable: Reducing the potential of a shooting spree or other gun-involved mayhem.

But a new report from Stateline, a news organization funded by the non-profit Pew Charitable Trusts, points out that many law enforcement and community organizations just don't have enough trained mental health and security experts to track down information from neighbors and co-workers to act on tips suggesting someone should be stripped of his guns.

“Red flag laws are only a small piece of a much bigger puzzle,” Patrick Prince, the vice provost for threat assessment at the University of Southern California and a former cop, told Stateline. “If we thought that these laws by themselves would be sufficient, we’d be foolish.”

New York's red flag law became effective Aug. 24. So I reached out to Delaware County Sheriff Craig DuMond, who is right on top how new laws enacted in Albany impact police agencies.

DuMond said the law is well intentioned, but it may have unintended consequences.

"I'm a strong Second Amendment (gun rights) person, but I'm the first person to say that the last thing a person experiencing mental health issues needs is access to a weapon," he said. "But we already had systems in place to address this, and I'm concerned that this is just going to add another layer of bureaucracy in New York state. This is another law we didn't need."

The sheriff said the new system for initiating a proceeding aimed at separating a person from his firearms could clog the courts and actually slow efforts to get guns away from a person bent on hurting others.

He suggested a better approach would have been to boost public awareness of how citizens may interact with police to report their concerns about a person with guns.

I also contacted Glenn Liebman, director of the Mental Health Association of New York State, an advocacy group.

"We just want to make sure that we're not saying that mental illness is the real cause of what we have seen in terms of the mass shootings," Liebman said. "And we need to recognize the importance of other factors, like domestic violence, like a family history of violence, like sexual assault from a young age. We don't want to conflate violence and mental illness. We have to take those other factors into account."

New York did not blaze any trails with its red flag law. California put its one on the books five years ago.

The bill sponsors said in a memo backing the legislation that household members can be in the best position to recognize when a person poses a danger to himself or others.

"They may even report their fears to law enforcement, but in New York, as in many other states, law enforcement officers may not have the authority to intervene based on the evidence they are provided, sometimes resulting in preventable tragedies, including interpersonal gun violence or suicide involving a gun," the memo stated.

The thrust of the Stateline report is that the success of the red flag laws will be determined by the effectiveness of mental health teams working with courts and police.


Stephen Acquario, director of the New York State Association of Counties, says his organization wants to see settlement money that may eventually result from ongoing litigation by counties and states against opioid manufacturers and distributors be earmarked for prevention and treatment efforts.

New York counties are among the more than 2,000 litigants seeking to hold the drug companies liable for damages resulting from the nation's wave of opioid-related deaths and hospitalizations.

Acquario said New York has experienced nearly 3,000 deaths resulting from opiod use and abuse. How the potential settlement money is divvied up, he told me, will likely hinge on where those deaths took place and the destination points for where the pills were shipped, along with other consequences of the pharmaceutical industry's push to make its addictive product available.

"There has been an awful lot of carnage in the state of New York, and no county has been spared" from the epidemic of addiction, Acquario said.

A major development in the legal battle was reported Aug. 26, when an Oklahoma judge ordered Johnson & Johnson to pay $572 million for contributing to that state's addiction crisis.

Acquario saluted state Attorney General Letitia James, saying: "She has been steadfast in her resolve that New York get what it deserves" from the manufacturers and distributors being sued.

In August, James, along with 38 other attorneys general, urged Congress to remove federal barriers that are currently preventing health care providers from offering treatment for opioid use disorder.

Joe Mahoney covers the New York Statehouse for CNHI's newspapers and websites. Reach him at

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