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NRA Signals Openness to Gun Removal Laws — With Conditions

Chris W. Cox, executive director of the NRA's Institute for Legislative Action, speaks during the Conservative Political Action Conference last year.

Lately, the NRA has relied heavily on videos to communicate with the public and its supporters, and video is how it announced its position on legislation to temporarily remove guns from people thought to pose a threat.

"We need to stop dangerous people before they act," says Chris W. Cox, executive director of the NRA's Institute for Legislative Action. "So Congress should provide funding to states to adopt risk protection orders."

On the surface, this is good news for gun control groups, which have been campaigning for such laws in states around the country. They say this kind of law might have allowed an early intervention to stop the troubled young man who killed 17 people in Parkland, Fla., last month.

Gun control groups have assumed the NRA opposes such laws, which are often referred to generically as "red flag laws."

"The NRA has put out press releases about red flag laws calling them 'Firearms Surrender Bills,' which is completely inaccurate and incendiary rhetoric," says Shannon Watts, founder of Moms Demand Action, affiliated with Everytown for Gun Safety.

So if the NRA now supports such bills, it would represent a big change. But Watts is skeptical.

"I suspect this is an attempt by the NRA to look moderate, but the devil's in the details," Watts says. She says the test is whether the NRA will continue to work against state red flag bills.

The NRA wouldn't give NPR an interview about its plans, but one of its representatives in Florida was quoted in the Tampa Bay Times last month saying the group would not support a version of red flag legislation there "until we see it has sufficient protections."

And that appears to be the sticking point. The NRA's support for red flag laws comes with the condition that there be high legal thresholds for temporary gun removals — higher than most gun control activists are calling for.

About a day after the NRA posted the video, negative reactions from supporters of gun rights forced it to add a clarifying note, saying the association did not support the kind of red flag laws that have already passed in other states. In 2014, California passed legislation allowing family members to ask judges to temporarily remove guns from a person who appears to pose a threat; in 2016, voters in Washington state approved a similar law.

"The NRA strongly opposed these laws because they do not protect due process rights. We will continue to oppose confiscation schemes such as these," the group wrote on its YouTube page.

The note goes on to say that red flag laws should "require the judge to make a determination of whether the person meets the state standard for involuntary commitment," and the removal of a gun must be accompanied by mental health treatment.

Dr. Garen Wintemute, the director of the University of California Firearm Violence Prevention Research Center and a proponent of red flag laws, says that condition goes too far.

"The requirement for mental health treatment is inappropriate, because 1) these orders don't necessarily involve mental health problems," Wintemute wrote in an email to NPR, "and 2) when they do, the requirement for treatment should be determined by a mental health professional—remember that the judge won't have such information in the vast majority of cases."

Still, Wintemute, an emergency department physician, believes the NRA's willingness to entertain the possibility of red flag laws is a positive development.

"I see this as a welcome instance of convergence in support of a focused, effective intervention and am looking forward to more such convergences," Wintemute writes.

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