VA Senate Passes Red Flag Law, Ignores Mental Health Crisis

The state Senate in Virginia gave final approval to a “red flag” firearms seizure bill Wednesday in a party line 21-19 vote, and over the objections of Republicans who argued that the bill still has due process issues and lacks any sort of mental health component.

Senate Democrats, meanwhile, claim that the bill is a “step forward,” and that it was the best bill that they could come up with. Of course, that’s not an argument to pass the bill, but it is clear that Virginia Democrats plan on approving as much of Ralph Northam’s gun control agenda as possible, even if the measures are modified or watered-down in the process.

While SB 240 remains unsupportable as far as I’m concerned (and for reasons I’ll get into momentarily), the good news is that the bill has undergone major revisions that I believe will make it far less likely that they will be used in most Second Amendment Sanctuary counties and communities across Virginia.

The bill as passed by the Senate, for instance, now requires two law enforcement officers to sign off on the application, as well as approval by the commonwealth’s attorney (Virginia’s version of a prosecutor). I suspect that many county sheriffs will choose to use the state’s existing civil commitment laws instead of pursuing red flag orders. A reporter for the Roanoke Times wondered on Twitter if that will actually be the case, however.

 

Here’s the ugly truth about why politicians like “red flag” laws. They poll well, and they don’t cost much. Of course, they don’t do much either, but they do allow a politician to say they’ve done “something,” and sadly, that’s enough for many elected officials. Actually addressing the mental health crisis in Virginia and adequately funding mental health services would cost a lot of money, and it’s not something that’s a hot button issue for most voters. Ralph Northam would rather call for free community college than free mental health screenings and increasing the number of beds available for those in acute need of mental health services.

Unfortunately, while I think most sheriffs and commonwealth’s attorneys won’t use this “tool,” some might. If they do, it will likely be as a last resort because of a lack of space in the state’s mental hospitals for individuals that sheriffs believe need help. This is a huge issue in Virginia, as the Richmond Times-Dispatch reported in July of 2019, when the state actually ran out of beds for those in crisis. As the paper noted at the time, the lack of beds isn’t just an issue for those who in crisis, it impacts law enforcement as well.

“What are we supposed to do?” [Ashland Police Chief Doug] Goodman asked. “As law enforcement, we are now caught between a rock and a hard place. And, more importantly, the person in crisis is caught between a rock and a hard place.”

Full state mental hospitals put severe pressure on law enforcement agencies, which must commit officers to holding people against their will and often transporting them across the state for treatment.

“This issue is imploding,” said Dana Schrad, executive director of the Virginia Association of Chiefs of Police. “Law enforcement cannot hold these folks if there isn’t a mental health bed available. Hopefully, they won’t end up in jails.”

State hospitals have come under increasing pressure since passage of the “bed of last resort” law in 2014 to end the process of “streeting,” in which people in crisis were allowed to leave without treatment because no psychiatric facility beds were available within the time allowed by state law for holding people involuntarily in emergency custody.

Lawmakers don’t want to deal with this crisis, so instead they’re offering up the “red flag” law as a cheap way of doing a little bit of something instead of fixing the actual problem. State Senator Joe Morrissey even inadvertently recognized this when he called SB 240 a “TDO-light”. We don’t need a weak version of a temporary detention order that only strips people of their right to own a gun. We need these lawmakers to fix the actual problem with our mental health system in the state. Voters in Virginia should be insulted that instead of doing their actual jobs, they’re patting themselves on the back for failing to deal with a very real and systemic crisis by focusing on stripping individuals of their constitutional rights with little due process and an incredibly low evidentiary standard.

The next stop for SB 240 is the state House, where a different version of “red flag” legislation has already been filed. We’ll have to see how the House manages to reconcile the Senate bill with their version. There’s a chance that the two houses won’t be able to find any common ground, but it’s a slim chance. As I said earlier, it’s clear that Democrats want to be able to deliver Northam’s gun control agenda to his desk in some form or fashion.

In the meantime, in addition to pointing out all of the flaws with these bills, gun owners should take every opportunity they can to remind the public that the red flag legislation is being pushed to allow lawmakers to avoid addressing the very real problem in our state’s mental health system. We know that even in states where red flag laws have been on the books for years, suicides are increasing, though gun-related suicides have seen some decline.

We shouldn’t be trying to get people to kill themselves in another way, which seems to be the outcome when red flag laws are put on the books. We should be trying to get them the help they need so they aren’t a danger to themselves any longer. That’s the “something” that Virginia Democrats should be working on instead of this unconstitutional and ineffective “tool.”