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Coleman readying ‘red flag’ bill for Alabama Legislature

By MARY SELL, Alabama Daily News

Rep. Merika Coleman, D-Birmingham, is gearing up to again push for a “red flag” law in Alabama.

Coleman on Tuesday told Alabama Daily News that she will have a bill ready for an expected special session later this year. And if not then, she’ll file it for the 2023 legislative session that starts in March. Coleman will then be a senator in that 35-member body.

Red flag or extreme risk protection laws allow law enforcement, usually through court orders, to seize firearms for those deemed to be a risk.

“These laws are really designed to make sure that if someone is a threat to themselves or to others, law enforcement has a tool to remove firearms from them, at least on a temporary basis,” Coleman said. 

Nineteen states and the District of Columbia have red flag laws. Republican-led Florida passed a red flag law in 2018, following a shooting at a Parkland, Florida high school that killed 17 people. A recent CBS News analysis of state court records showed Florida has issued 8,969 emergency risk protection orders since 2018.

According to The Pew Charitable Trusts, most states allow only law enforcement and family or household members to petition the courts to temporarily seize or prevent the purchase of firearms, while some states also offer the option to medical professionals, school officials, coworkers and current or former partners. Five states allow only law enforcement officials to petition. The amount of time for which a person can’t have a firearm varies by state, but is usually about one year.

Coleman filed red flag bills in 2019 and 2021. They never advanced out of the House Judiciary Committee. 

“This is not about taking guns away from people — I’m a gun owner myself,” Coleman said. “This is about giving law enforcement a tool that can be used to prevent mass shootings in addition to preventing people from harming themselves.”

Rep. Phillip Pettus, R-Green Hill, is on the House Judiciary Committee and a retired state trooper. He said his opposition to red flag laws is the potential that they be used to harass law-abiding citizens.

“Anybody could make a claim (against another person) and say they’re crazy and don’t need to have a gun,” Pettus said. He said people, not guns, should be blamed for crimes.

“Mental illness is our problem,” Pettus said. “This year, we put more money in the (state budgets) for treating mental illness, and we’re going to have to keep putting more money toward treating mental illness.”

Red flags laws are at least a small part of a gun conversation in Congress right now, with bipartisan senators tasked with coming up with an incremental package that would increase federal funding to support state gun safety efforts — with incentives for bolstering school security and mental health resources. The package may also encourage “red-flag laws” to keep firearms away from those who would do harm, the Associated Press has reported.

In 2020, Alabama had 1,141 gun deaths and a gun death rate of 23.6 per 100,000 people, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Only four other states had higher rates — Mississippi, Louisiana, Wyoming and Missouri.

According to the CDC, there were 793 suicides in Alabama in 2020. 

In 2018, suicide was the 11th leading cause of death in Alabama with 823 deaths, compared to 567 deaths due to homicide, according to the Alabama Department of Public Health. Firearms were used in 67.1% of those suicides.

Coleman said she has and will continue to talk to her colleagues about her bill as suicide prevention.

“Incidents of suicide can be prevented if we can get these firearms away from folks,” she said.

Alabama Senate Majority Leader Clay Scofield recently said on Alabama Public Television’s Capitol Journal that a red flag bill would be considered, if introduced in that chamber, but he stressed the need for secure schools and mental health care in the wake of the Uvalde, Texas shooting late last month.

Coleman last month won the Democrat primary in Senate District 19. There is no Republican running, meaning Coleman will be in the Senate when the Legislature meets in March 2023.

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