Suffolk County on Long Island has aggressively used the law to take guns from people in crisis in an effort to prevent shootings and suicides. His experience can be the subject of national debate.
June 5, 2022Updated 18:16 ET
The boy made his threat on the school bus.
In late March, a 16-year-old in Suffolk County, NY, 60 miles east of New York City, told fellow students he wanted to shoot them in the head, according to court records. He told police he wanted to hurt himself with a shotgun at his home.
What happened next happened more frequently in Suffolk County than any other county in the state: A judge issued a “red flag” order allowing authorities to take guns from homes. Police filed an application to remove the boy’s access to the gun. The judge acted upon discovering that he posed a danger. Two rifles taken. The judge later wrote that the boy “admits that not having a gun at home helps him a lot.”
After the horrific mass shootings at Buffalo supermarkets, Texas schools and Oklahoma hospitals, many policymakers are looking for ways to keep guns out of the hands of people in crisis.
On Thursday, President Biden pleaded with Congress to pass the federal red flag bill, though the measure faced strong opposition from Republicans who argued the red flag process could be abused to take away innocent people’s basic right to own guns. There are also negotiations in Washington to offer incentives for more states to pass red flag laws—New York is one of 19 that have them, along with the District of Columbia.
An examination by The New York Times of more than 100 red flag cases filed in Suffolk County since the law came into effect in August 2019 shows how New York’s legislation has eased dozens of precarious situations in Long Island suburbs and coastal cities. , according to current and former officials.
Red flag laws are not a panacea. It doesn’t mandate treatment for the disruptive behavior that caused the order, and its effect on gun death stats is hard to see. But those who have implemented it say it is an essential tool.
“This is something we can use in a gray area where we have nothing and we are just walking away from situations that we know are making the hair on the back of our necks stand on end,” said Geraldine Hart, a former county police commissioner who help direct the rollout of the law.
Initiated by panicked police officers, school officials, and family members, the Suffolk County case creates domestic chaos and potential disaster. They led to the removal of more than 160 weapons, including at least five military-style rifles. They involved 22 people under the age of 25, including 11 minors.
The youngest subject of the red flag is 14; the oldest is 88. All but two are male.
A spokesman for the state court, Lucian Chalfen, said that by law, red flag records must be sealed after expiration. But the Suffolk cases, many of which involve expired orders, remain in commercial law databases and, in some cases, open court records.
The filing is filled with people threatening to shoot at the courthouse or school building, people getting drunk in cars with guns and ammunition, people behaving erratically at gun shops or military base checkpoints or shooting randomly into neighboring yards. . People who are desperate because of the loss of a job or a boyfriend, spouse’s deteriorating health, the death of a parent. People texting friends and loved ones “Goodbye forever” or “I got a gun by my bed bro” or posting, “When I kill everyone knows it’s my dad’s fault.”
These cases demonstrate a basic fact of American life: the dangerous overlap between groups of people with access to guns and groups of people experiencing severe mental stress. About every eight days, a judge in Suffolk County directs authorities to take a firearm and prohibits anyone from obtaining a gun. Orders, handled in civil courts, do not usually lead to criminal prosecution.
Known officially as the extreme risk protection order, the red flag has been used sparingly throughout much of New York. About 620 “final” orders – valid for up to a year – have been enforced statewide.
Judges in Suffolk County, which has about 1.5 million residents, have issued at least 117 final orders, the highest rate of all the most populous counties. (The nation’s leading red-flag order issuer is Florida, where judges have signed more than 8,000 under a 2018 law passed following the shooting at a high school in Parkland.)
Ms. Hart said Suffolk had been “forward-oriented” in educating police and school officials about the law, and discussing it at community meetings. “It is one thing to pass laws and promulgate them,” he said, “but it is another thing to provide training and outreach and support.”
Dennis M. Cohen, a Suffolk County attorney, added, “From the start, we as a policy decided to take an aggressive approach.”
That attitude may spread. After the buffalo slaughter, Governor Kathy Hochul required state police to request a red flag order when they believe someone poses a danger.
His direction was prompted by the fact that the 18-year-old charged with the shooting, Payton S. Gendron, did not go through red-flag proceedings when he wrote in a school assignment that he wanted to someday commit murder-suicide. . Mr. Gendron was brought in for a mental health evaluation but he wrote that he was only seen for 15 minutes and he lied that the statement was a joke. “That’s the reason I believe I can still buy guns,” he wrote.
The process for a red flag order is straightforward: A judge at the county level can issue a provisional order, and after a hearing, a final order based on evidence that someone may have caused serious harm. Orders can be updated.
Research into the efficacy of the law is mixed. A Connecticut study found that one suicide was avoided for every 10 to 20 gun seizures. One in San Diego County, California, found that red flags did not significantly reduce gun violence.
In Suffolk County, the heavier use of red flag orders did not appear to result in significant changes in gun death rates compared to those in other states. But Ms. Hart, a former police commissioner, said the district is seeing some positive effects, including forcing parents to confront their children’s psychological problems.
Laura Sarowitz, an attorney at the prosecutor’s office, said the order has also helped families with members who wish to harm themselves by making it difficult to obtain weapons. “That does create an extra drag,” he said.
Suffolk County sheriff’s deputies usually serve orders and pull out guns, walking into situations they know little about.
“This could be a very high risk,” said Deputy Chief Sheriff Christopher Brockmeyer. “We’re trying to do our due diligence and vet as many respondents as we can.”
Some attorneys believe the county has overstepped its bounds. Peter H. Tilem, whose firm has represented clients in red flag cases, said some were based solely on written statements or text messages to a friend.
“How does it feel for a student who has never committed a crime until the police broke down his door and confiscated his gun?” asked Mr. Tilem. “How does it feel to be examined by a psychiatrist and psychologist to prove that he is not a danger to himself or anyone else?”
In Suffolk, orders are issued for a variety of reasons.
Someone has been accused of threatening a boyfriend, housemate or aunt; people who say they are planning a “police suicide” and people who are delusional: a man screams that he is the messiah and that he needs to cut off his grandmother’s side; another with a gun under his bed blabbering that the U.F.O.s, aliens and the government wanted to shoot him with a laser.
At least 11 red-flag orders involved school threats, including a pair issued Thursday and Friday to two 15-year-olds, one of whom walked into a classroom and shouted, “I’m going to fire at the school.” Another boy posted on Instagram that he wished he was locked up so he and the other boys could “CONQUER CASES SO WE CAN BOOM THE SCHOOL.”
There were people who didn’t have guns but were given red flags so they didn’t buy them, and people who had entire arsenals confiscated. A man who was already under red flag orders was hit with a second for asking his friend to buy a gun for him. And sometimes, civil actions and the resulting searches end in criminal charges for weapons or illegal drugs.
After a judge gave this year’s order against Robert Ludwig, 26, who had spoken of suicide, sheriff’s deputies said they found three illegal “ghost weapons” assembled from the kit, 4,000 rounds of ammunition and a pharmacopoeia that included fentanyl, amphetamines, LSD and Xanax. He was charged with possession of a gun and drugs and has pleaded not guilty, said his lawyer, Michael J. Brown.
Brown said there were mitigating circumstances in Ludwig’s case, and “there is no indication whatsoever that he would use any weapon against himself or anyone else.”
By far, the most common reason for an order is to prevent suicide.
In January 2022, for example, a 37-year-old man wrote on Facebook that he wanted to shoot himself and posted a photo of the gun at Dick’s Sporting Goods in Patchogue. The employee told the police that he had just bought a rifle and ammunition. They found the man in his car a few miles away with a gun in the back seat.
Although Suffolk County judges grant most requests for orders, there are many exceptions.
Last August, a man texted a friend that he had tried to shoot himself but the gun had stuck, adding, “I don’t want to be here anymore.” At a trial on final injunction, both men testified that the texts were a joke, and the judge found that police had not provided clear and convincing evidence that the man posed a danger.
Robert M. Schechter, his attorney, said his client was fine and three rifles were returned to the house.
In the 2021 case, a man in the city of North Shore confronted parents waiting in their car to pick up their children at elementary school, complaining that they were blocking his driveway and using it to turn around. A motorcyclist said he was involved in a chest clash in which the man threatened to blow his head off. After an interim red flag order, police retrieved a pump action rifle, three shotguns and a handgun.
But at trial, the man admitted to simply saying “someone has to shoot” the rider. The judge wrote that while the man “behaved in an inappropriate, abusive and unwarranted manner,” there was insufficient evidence that he intended to harm anyone.
Sometimes the authorities seem to have a compelling case, but the order is denied due to a lack of witnesses.
When Cynthia Carro reported that her husband strangled her in a drug-fueled rage in 2019, police obtained a temporary red flag and confiscated about 20 rifles and other firearms, according to court filings and interviews with her.
But when police asked Carro to testify at trial, he said he feared the financial consequences for their family.
“They would call me and I wouldn’t leave, because I just didn’t want him to lose his job,” he said.
Without his testimony, the judge refused to issue a final order.
“All I want is for him to get better so my kids can have their dad,” said Ms. Carro about her husband, from whom she separated. The husband did not respond to a phone call seeking comment.
However, once the final order was issued, the judge was reluctant to turn around.
In 2019, a judge flagged a college student who showed signs of mania after he lost his grandmother and broke up with his girlfriend, got involved in a street rage incident and bought an AK-47 he called a “baby.” A friend said he was concerned that he was in a “downward spiral.”
When the order had nearly three months left, Mr. Schechter and Mr. Tilem, the man’s lawyer, moved to end it, arguing that his suffering was temporary, that he had been cleared by three medical experts and that he was undergoing therapy.
“He was sad, and people were sometimes happy and other times sad,” Mr. Schechter, “but to take rights away from people is not something the courts have to do easily.”
The judge was unmoved; the command runs by itself.
The student has “done very well since this has ended,” Tilem said.
Susan C. Beachy contributed to the research. Jonah E. Bromwich contributed reporting.