Friday, August 9, 2019


By Dominique Paul Noth

The idea sounds good.  The police would be empowered to temporarily take guns away from citizens in danger of hurting themselves and others. There is supposed to be follow-up counseling to keep the community safe and decide when the guns can be returned. 

Versions vary from state to state – several have the red flag laws -- but the concept basically is police or family members can petition a court to order the temporary removal of firearms from a person who may present a danger to others or themselves.  The idea of a judge is central to the concept, until you start thinking of judges whose political views tend to control their opinions.  That’s when the slippery slope of due process, much more important to me than restriction of gun rights, rears its head.

A plus for the idea is that the NRA is against it and another is that Republicans who have avoided gun legislation find aspects of this attractive. Moscow Mitch is even making favorable grunts.

I frankly find their attraction suspicious. 

Red flag laws are a decent tool if carefully written to not make someone who talks about taking action against Trump sound crazy and committable. If you think my fear is far-fetched, try applying the law to judges who rely on politicians as well as voters to get into office.   Try thinking about the need to remove weapons.  Who decides?  The sheriff? The spouse?   Which judges in Wisconsin?  How is the evidence gathered – and by whom?

In a country when so many gun deaths are suicides, red flag laws have proven to help take guns away from people going through obvious trauma, or drinking bouts or opioid distress.  There is evidence that taking away the methods of suicide – guns, pills, whatever –deter suicidal folk.  But there is little evidence that, outside suicides, red flag laws are more than a drop in the bucket of blood our society endures.

No, this has merit, but limited merit.  It is a feel good piece of legislation rather than a direct assault on our gun culture.  It is shaping up as another salve to the GOP conscience – and frankly, to the Democratic conscience because the Republicans have blocked everything else and now we can all pretend to real progress.

Don’t misunderstand. Guns should be taken away – but not just from people with chronic mental problems.  We all have moments of sickness, of anger, and it is foolhardy to believe police officers or a judge will know best when our fit has passed and we can go about our regular lives.  Temporarily named can become permanently stigmatized. In an era when people lose it for a moment on a phone video, and that moment flies around the globe, a Big Brother mentality can create a lot of problems. 

And once guns enter the picture we have plunged into a world that defies logic. Gun owners are fiercely protective that there is nothing wrong with them and people who fear gun owners are not the best judges of who is safe and who is not.

Moreover this is all happening in the world of Trump.  Law enforcement in general and national security in particular are being politicized.  The president is electing friendlies to the justice department, the intelligence community and the federal courts, which some legislation would seek to get involved. Is this a time when we want to extend police power and claim it will always be rationally employed?

Red flag laws that give more power to law enforcement and to judges in a partisan environment strike me as multiple kinds of danger.

Obviously the legislation has to be tightly crafted. Equally obvious, there will be human beings taking action – motivated after a mass shooting, motivated by a presidential tantrum, perhaps more careful during a lull; hyped with genuine concern about a loved one,  stridently worried about the unloved. 

Republicans now want to do something, but the public shouldn’t let them use baby aspirin when major surgery is required. 

About the author: Noth has been  a professional journalist since the 1960s, first as national, international and local news copy editor at The Milwaukee Journal, then as an editor for its original Green Sheet, also  for almost two decades the paper’s film and drama critic. He became the newspaper’s senior feature editor. He was tapped by the publishers of the combining Milwaukee Journal Sentinel for special projects and as first online news producer before voluntarily departing in the mid-1990s to run online news seminars and write on public affairs and Internet and consumer news. From 2002 to 2013 he ran the Milwaukee Labor Press as editor. It served as the Midwest’s largest home-delivered labor newspaper, with archives at  In that role he won top awards yearly until the paper stopped publishing in 2013. His investigative pieces and extensive commentaries are now published by several news outlets as well as his DomsDomain dual culture and politics outlets.  He also reviews theater for Urban Milwaukee.

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