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Fairfax County touts state gun removal law as tool to help stop shootings

Fairfax County Commonwealth’s Attorney Steve Descano discusses Virginia’s law allowing weapons to be temporarily removed from at-risk individuals (staff photo by David Taube)

Fairfax County police can now temporarily take guns away from people deemed a risk.

The procedures allow law enforcement to intervene before violence occurs, rather then retroactively responding to crimes, according to county leaders, who touted Virginia’s legislative change that went into effect July 1 last year.

Advocates suggested the law can help prevent domestic violence, suicides, and school shootings.

“Help us to prevent another gun tragedy,” Commonwealth’s Attorney Steve Descano said yesterday (Monday) during a news conference at the county’s Public Safety Headquarters.

Previously, law enforcement’s hands were tied, Descano said. Now, people can call or text 911, which initiates a Fairfax County Police Department investigation.

If a court determines with probable cause that a person poses a risk of harming themselves or others with a firearm they have or could get, the court can prohibit them from purchasing, possessing, or transporting those weapons.

In addition to D.C., 18 other states have introduced similar measures, dubbed “red flag laws,” starting with Connecticut in 1999. It has been upheld in courts because it has a due process element, said Paul Friedman, executive director of the Alexandria-based nonprofit Safer Country, which advocates for gun violence prevention.

While critics have argued that red flag laws take away Second Amendment rights, Descano said that those affected are given a full hearing.

Intended as the launch of a new communications campaign to increase awareness of the new law, the press conference took place one day before the nine-year anniversary of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in Connecticut on Dec. 14, 2012, when 20 children and six educators were killed.

Friedman also noted the 2018 Parkland, Florida, high school shooting that left 14 students and three staff dead, and parent Fred Guttenberg, whose daughter was one of the victims, has said he wished the state had a red flag law at the time. Florida later created one.

“We are now living in a world with…a gun violence crisis,” said Friedman, whose organization advocated for the change in Virginia. “We can save lives with this law.”

The law allows a law enforcement officer or the Office of the Commonwealth Attorney to petition a court through an emergency substantial risk order, which can be used to enforce a temporary removal and purchase restrictions on weapons.

The court has to hold a hearing no later than 14 days later, where the affected party has the right to attend and can be represented by counsel. The court then rules on whether the removal should be turned into a substantial risk order for 180-day periods, which can be renewed indefinitely, if a court finds cause to do so.

Belinda Massaro, a mobile crisis unit manager with the Fairfax-Falls Church Community Services Board, said family members are often in the best position to know about potential issues, noting that suicide is a leading cause of death in the U.S.

She also challenged the harmful narrative that violence stems from mental illness, noting that serious mental illness is only involved 4% of violent acts in the country.

“People with mental illness are more often victims of violence than the cause of violence,” she said. “Studies have shown that people with mental illness are 23 times more likely to be victims of a violent crime than others.”

However, the future of the red flag law is uncertain, as Virginia prepares for a legislature and governor’s office now led by Republicans, who could dismantle the measure amid pressure from the National Rifle Association.

A reversal would remove Fairfax County’s power to use it, Friedman told FFXnow. He said it would survive if Democratic legislators who narrowly hold a majority in the Senate keep their stances the same.

Descano said he wanted the law strengthened, suggesting a 180-day provision could be doubled to provide more comfort to families.

Fairfax County authorities said they’ve used the law for 34 emergency substantial risk orders and 18 substantial risk orders. They encouraged people to speak up if they notice a potential issue.

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