More than a decade ago after a man with schizophrenia shot and killed an Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department officer, the state passed a “red flag” law that allows authorities to remove guns temporarily from those considered at risk to others or themselves.
Now a University of Indianapolis study has found data to suggest the law has been working, at least in Indiana when it comes to people taking their own lives.
The last decade has seen a 7.5 percent decrease in firearms-related suicides in the state, according to Aaron Kivisto, an assistant professor of clinical psychology, and lead author of the paper, which appeared in the June issue of the journal Psychiatric Services.
No other comparable state saw as dramatic a reduction in that time period, the study found.
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During that period there was also no significant increase in suicides by other means in Indiana, Kivisto added, suggesting that the law has had the desired effect of preventing violent self-harm.
While the study also found a decrease in firearm-related suicides in Connecticut after it enacted the first-ever red flag law, the red flag had little impact at first there. Only after the 2007 Virginia Tech shooting, when enforcement of the law increased in the Nutmeg state, it saw a nearly 14 percent reduction in suicide rates.
In addition, that state saw some increase in suicides by non-firearm means, Kivisto said.
Much of the recent attention on such laws has focused not on their potential to prevent suicides but to prevent individuals with mental illness from harming others.
Rhode Island just became the ninth state to add such a law to its books and several others are considering passing such measures in the wake of the Parkland and Las Vegas shootings.
Although Kivisto’s study looked at the effect of the law on suicides, he said, some of the decrease in suicides might also apply to homicides.
“It’s possible that some sizeable portion of suicides (prevented) are murder suicides,” he said. “We just don’t know that.”
However, he added that the bulk of the times that law enforcement removes a gun under the red flag law in Indianapolis have been because of fears of suicide. In other cases, the red flag law has been used to remove a gun from someone diagnosed with active psychosis or in domestic violence cases.
Indiana’s red flag measure allows law enforcement to remove the gun without a warrant, but a hearing with a judge will then be scheduled within days to ensure that the situation meets the standard of a red flag, Kivisto said.
A person may pass a background check to own a gun because he or she does not have a history of psychiatric illness and become high risk after he or she is cleared to own a firearm, Kivisto said. Red flag laws help fill that “gap.”
Future research will focus on the impact such laws could have on lowering the homicide rate.
“Policy makers working to reduce gun violence benefit from data in helping them weigh the balance between individual risks and rights,” Kivisto said. “There are a lot of avenues we would like to go down.”
Call IndyStar staff reporter Shari Rudavsky at (317) 444-6354. Follow her on Facebook and on Twitter.