WASHINGTON — Senate Judiciary Committee chair Lindsey Graham told BuzzFeed News he will start crafting legislation next week to expand police powers to preemptively seize firearms from people believed to be a danger to themselves or others.
Graham is angling to get bipartisan support for his bill, and has been in discussions with Democratic Sen. Richard Blumenthal. Neither would outline specifics Thursday beyond saying it will be an original piece of legislation. Graham said work on hammering out the contents of the bill will begin next week.
Despite a string of mass shootings in recent years, Congress has not taken action on any significant new gun control measures, only authorizing funding to improve the national background checks system.
Graham told BuzzFeed News on Thursday his bill will provide grants to states that pass extreme risk protection orders, or ERPOs. Also known as “red flag laws,” they allow judges to authorize police to temporarily seize a person’s guns, with no advance notice, if there are grounds to believe the person may commit a violent act.
“I’m seeking to incentivize states to produce extreme risk protective order legislation that has ample due process but also is meaningful in protecting the public from somebody who is dangerous,” said Graham.
ERPO laws have broken through at the state level since the Parkland, Florida, shooting a year ago, where the shooter exhibited a pattern of disturbing behavior leading up to the attack but was able to keep his guns. Before Parkland, only five states had such laws. Today, Colorado is about to become the 15th state, plus the District of Columbia, to pass ERPO legislation.
“The benefits are enormous. If you just stop one, that’s enormous. And there has to be due process, we all get that,” Graham said last week at the end of a Judiciary Committee meeting studying red flag laws.
Democrats widely welcomed ERPO legislation, while also saying more reforms are needed.
“I think that Republicans know they can’t do nothing any longer. Republicans know they can’t go into 2020 exposed on the issue of guns like they were in 2018,” said Sen. Chris Murphy. “I don’t think red flags law are sufficient from a policy perspective or a political perspective. They’re diversionary.”
Other Democrats were surprised that a powerful Republican like Graham would be willing to try to pass any kind of red flag law legislation.
“We are literally talking about provisions that result in people’s guns being taken away,” said Democratic Sen. Chris Coons. “You would think in this environment that would be something nobody would want to talk about in the other party.”
Republicans traditionally oppose any laws to take away guns, but this time feels different. President Trump voiced support for ERPOs after the Parkland shooting and new Attorney General William Barr did the same during his confirmation hearings. Republican Sens. Ted Cruz and John Kennedy, both Judiciary Committee members, told BuzzFeed News that they objected to red flag laws on Second Amendment grounds. But several other Republican lawmakers expressed support. “Everything I’ve heard has been positive,” said Sen. Rick Scott, who signed ERPOs into law in his former role as governor of Florida.
Rep. Mark Meadows, chair of the hardline conservative House Freedom Caucus, said even his group could get behind the bill if it contains appropriate due process protections. “I do think there may be a sweet spot,” he said. The National Rifle Association has expressed support in principle for red flag laws, but in practice it has opposed the laws when they have been proposed at the state level.
“Obviously they see some writing on the wall that this is a popular policy, and that itself is telling,” said Jonas Oransky, legal director at gun control advocacy group Everytown for Gun Safety.
The big question is how far the legislation goes in compelling states to adopt ERPO laws. Blumenthal compared the possibilities to Congress using transportation funding to strong-arm the states into adopting highway speed limits. Graham implied he would take a lighter touch, using grants to financially reward states for passing ERPO laws proactively.
This would be a less ambitious plan than Graham and Blumenthal proposed just last year after the Parkland shooting. Their bill would have authorized police to seek protection orders from the federal courts, essentially instituting ERPO laws in all 50 states in one fell swoop.
That remains the goal of gun control groups. But instituting a nationwide ERPO system would likely be much more controversial among Republicans.
The acronym for extreme risk protection order, ERPO, was misspelled in an earlier version of this post.