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Experts advocate better red flag laws as 2022 sees 202 mass shootings

A group prays in the street on Sunday near the site of the mass shooting on Saturday at a Tops supermarket in Buffalo, N.Y. Photo by Aaron Josefczyk/UPI | License Photo

May 16 (UPI) -- There have been 202 mass shootings in the United States through the 5 1/2 months of this year, including Saturday's racially motivated attack at a Buffalo supermarket that killed 10.

One person was killed and four others were critically injured in a shooting at a California church Sunday, while two people died after an argument escalated at a Houston flea market on the same day.

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Eight other mass murders have occurred, and midway through May, more than 7,100 people have been killed by gun violence.

"We are a country right now that is awash in weaponry. We have lots and lots of violent rhetoric and we have lots of weapons," Josh Horwitz, co-director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Violence Solutions, told UPI in a interview Monday.

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"What we're seeing around the country is an unprecedented rise in shootings," said Horwitz, who pointed to a 35% increase in firearm-related homicides in 2020, the most-recent data available.

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"There's an unprecedented level of gun violence in America right now. What we're seeing right now is a rise in homicide. We don't know why that's happening. We know some of the factors that can cause a rise in homicide [rates], but we don't know exactly how all those have come together."

Factors include pandemic-related job loss and subsequent economic hardships.

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"The type of social dislocation that we see in the pandemic -- we see economic and housing dislocation, the type of community supports that have been in place -- have fallen away," Horwitz said.

"We know that these are risk factors, we just don't know how they're combining right now."

But it's not just economic desperation, spurred on by record inflation.

"You see an unprecedented level of gun purchasing. There are more firearms in peoples' hands and a lot of new gun owners are out there," he said.

That, combined with a political rhetoric that can at times be used to justify violence, means Americans will continue experiencing cases like Buffalo.

"We've got a much more coarse political system with open appeals to violence and that cannot help but trickle down to other people," Horwitz said, pointing to politicians like Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, and former President Donald Trump.

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"When some leaders talk using violence in the political system, some people take that realistically. And so there's a responsibility to really tone down our rhetoric."

Strengthening or expanding firearms laws is also essential to see any tangible changes, Jooyoung Lee, an associate professor of sociology at the University of Toronto's Center for the Study of the United States, said in an interview.

"One of the big takeaways we can glean from any mass shooting is that the people who go on to do them, overwhelmingly, buy their guns legally. They don't go through secret networks of gun traffickers," said Lee, an American who has studied gangs and gun violence in Los Angeles, publishing books on the subject.

"While mass shootings get everyone talking about the problems of gun violence, there are far more instances, quantitatively speaking, of everyday, routine conflicts that escalate into serious injuries or deaths because the wrong people have access to guns."

No system is perfect, Lee said, but one solution is so-called red flag laws that allow individuals or law enforcement to petition the court to have someone's firearm temporarily taken away, if they've shown a proclivity for or have a history of violence.

In Buffalo, shooting suspect Payton Gendron had been investigated by police after threatening a school shooting.

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"In principle, red flag laws are a good thing. They empower police and law enforcement to confiscate weapons from people who are at risk of using them against themselves or others," said Lee, who is also a senior fellow with the Yale University Urban Ethnography Project.

"There are some studies showing the efficacy of efforts at the municipal level of using red flag legislation to take guns when there is credible information about a person planning an attack or using them against themselves. I don't think that any red flag law would be a perfect model but certainly, we have to try something."

Horwitz agrees.

"We need better gun laws, we need more investment in violence intervention," he said, having contributed to California's existing regulations.

"In 2014 in California, we helped develop a modern version of the extreme risk protection order that allows for family members and law enforcement to petition the court for a civil order to remove a firearm from a person who would hurt themselves or others," Horwitz said.

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"These [laws] are a really important tool. But they are very young and they need to be widely implemented, and frankly, they're only in 19 states and the District of Columbia. They need to be in every state."

On a state-by-state basis, getting congruence can be challenging.

"We need to use them [laws] and state governors need to provide money for these things to work," Horwitz said, while acknowledging he does see a shift in thinking.

"Often when these [red flag] laws are proposed, you'll have rural sheriffs or law enforcement say, 'We're not going to do this.' But the reality is, when push comes to shove, and people need it, they use it. If you need to get a firearm out of their hands, this is a great tool, these extreme risk protection orders."

A sustained spate of public violence may spur even the most hardened state legislators to change their position, he said.

"I think states are moving in this direction. What we do at the center is, we provide the information and the research when there is a critical opportunity for change. Right now is a critical opportunity for change. State legislators are looking and saying, 'We don't want that to happen in our state.'"

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