Republicans typically respond to mass shootings by loosening gun laws, not tightening them. But after the 2018 shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, the state became a model for how Republicans could implement gun control.
Florida’s Republican-controlled legislature passed a law, later signed by Republican Gov. Rick Scott, that raised the age to buy long guns, including AR-15-style rifles, from 18 to 21; required a three-day waiting period between when a firearm is purchased and when the buyer can get access to that gun; allowed trained school staff to carry guns; and put $400 million toward mental health services and school security.
It also created an extreme risk law, or “red flag law,” that can bar individuals who are believed to pose a danger to themselves or others from possessing firearms — a measure that has gotten increasing attention in the wake of the recent streak of mass shootings as a policy solution that could draw bipartisan support nationally and in other states.
The Florida law is a guidepost for ongoing negotiations over gun policy in the US Senate, led by Sens. Chris Murphy (D-CT) and John Cornyn (R-TX).
“The template for Florida is the right one,” Murphy told CNN on Sunday. “Sen. Scott, then-Gov. Scott, passed that law in Florida because it was the right thing to do, but also because Republicans saw it as good politics. We have to make the case for Republicans that right now this is good politics.”
But some Republicans in Congress, including Scott, have argued that red flag laws ought to be left up to the states. Currently, 19 states and Washington, DC, have red flag laws. Most of them are controlled by Democrats, with the exception of Florida and Indiana. But particularly after the recent school shootings at an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas, and at a medical complex in Tulsa, Oklahoma, there have been growing calls for red states to consider something similar.
Why Republicans supported Florida’s red flag law
Florida’s red flag law allows the police to petition a judge for what’s called an “extreme risk protection order,” which can temporarily bar an individual from having a gun for up to a year. Police have to provide evidence that the individual poses “significant danger” to themselves or the public, which can include recent violent acts or threats of violence. If the individual continues to pose such a danger after one year, police can seek a one-time extension for another year.
Since the law was enacted, Florida judges have issued extreme risk protection orders more than 8,000 times.
It might seem improbable that Republicans voted for such a measure given the potential political risks. There’s a vocal Republican minority that views the Second Amendment and the right to use a gun for self-defense as a defining part of their identity. They’ve mobilized around protecting that right against any encroachment, much more so than the left has around gun control, and are backed by a well-funded gun lobby.
Florida’s red flag law did face opposition from right-wing activists and the National Rifle Association, whose powerful Florida lobbyist Marion Hammer called the Republicans who voted for it “betrayers.”
Republicans overcame that opposition by acting collectively: The bill was drafted by a Republican and 75 out of 99 GOP lawmakers voted for it. The NRA did downgrade their scorecards in response, but none suffered any career-ending consequences.
“The funny thing about elected officials is, they have all the power. The lobbyists cannot go on the floor and press that button. So in the end, if you have the courage, you press the button and damn the torpedoes,” former GOP state Rep. Jose R. Oliva, who sponsored the bill in the Florida House, told the Washington Post.
Is Florida’s red flag law a blueprint for other states?
Florida’s red flag law has been identified as a potential model for other red states. But at the moment, it doesn’t seem as though there is a critical mass of Republicans who are interested in enacting red flag laws in states that don’t already have them. That’s true even in Texas and Oklahoma, where Republican lawmakers haven’t budged in the wake of the Uvalde and Tulsa shootings.
There was a brief period following the 2018 mass shooting at a high school in Santa Fe, Texas, where the state’s Republican leadership, including Gov. Greg Abbott and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, entertained the idea of enacting a red flag law. As part of a 43-page school safety plan, Abbott asked Texas lawmakers to consider it, arguing that when “properly designed, emergency risk protective orders could identify those intent on violence from firearms, but in a way that preserves fundamental rights under the Second Amendment.”
But that proposal ultimately went nowhere. That’s in part due to opposition from gun rights activists who argued that it would allow the state to take away people’s guns without adequate due process. They feel that many state red flag laws are overly broad, do not guarantee the subject of an extreme risk protection order proper representation in court, and could be abused. Lawmakers and law enforcement officials in states that have red flag laws have countered that abuse is difficult as the legal standards for taking away someone’s guns are sufficiently high and that doing so requires “clear and convincing evidence.”
“I would say that the biggest concern that people have about red flag laws is that they would be abused,” said Brendan Steinhauser, a GOP consultant in Texas and the chief strategy officer for Young Americans for Liberty, a conservative student activism organization that has opposed red flag laws. “I think that there’s a concern that we are opening the doors to taking away a constitutional right before there’s a crime, before there’s even a threat of a crime.”
Since Uvalde, Abbott hasn’t advocated for any gun control measures at all. Instead, he wants to further arm school officials and fund mental health interventions. But with the November election fast approaching, he’s unlikely to convene a special session to address even those proposals in the interim, despite calls from Texas Democrats to do so.
There is some internal disagreement in the state party about red flag laws. Notably, some 250 Texas gun enthusiasts, including top GOP donors, took out a full-page ad in the Dallas Morning News endorsing red flag laws, among other gun control measures. That could influence Texas Republicans’ policies going forward, but it’s unlikely to translate into immediate action, especially before the election.
“They represent the more business-establishment wing, if you will, but they have a lot of influence in the party for sure,” Steinhauser said. “I just don’t think it’s going to lead to a red flag law.”
It’s a similar story in deep-red Oklahoma. To the extent that the Tulsa shooting has brought about any change in thinking on gun laws, it’s that Republicans are getting behind proposals to expand mental health resources, said Pat McFerron, a GOP strategist in Oklahoma.
And there’s a major legal barrier to passing any policy like Florida’s in the state: In 2020, the state legislature went as far as enacting a law to prevent any national red flag law from going into effect in Oklahoma.
“Local governments, judges, counties, the state, no entity can implement a red flag law nor can they accept money to implement a red flag law under the current law that we have on the books right now,” state Sen. Nathan Dahm, a Republican who sponsored that bill, told Fox affiliate KOKH.
There just isn’t much political impetus for Republicans in Texas and Oklahoma to institute a red flag law when they only have to answer to their primary voters absent any serious challenges from Democrats. Those primary voters represent the most right-wing faction of the Republican Party — the faction that is opposed to any kind of gun control and favors loosening gun laws. So while 68 percent of Texas voters overall support red flag laws, the 34 percent of Republicans who oppose them have more sway. And according to McFerron’s own preliminary survey data following the Tulsa shooting, most Republican primary voters in Oklahoma would still like to see existing gun controls rolled back.
The US is also in a fundamentally different political moment than when Florida passed its red flag law in 2018. Then, Democrats were riding a blue wave and helped focus attention on state reforms; in 2022, they’re worried about losing control of both chambers of Congress. And it’s not even clear that the same measures would pass the Florida legislature today. Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis, who is to the right of Scott, has already said that he would have vetoed the bill had he been in office at the time.
Today, said Jim Henson, director of the Texas Politics Project at the University of Texas at Austin, “Republicans have momentum, and I think that there’s just not a lot of interest in spending political capital on a gun safety bill, despite the fact that there are lots of reasons for it.”