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Raising Red Flags: Minnesota police chiefs and sheriffs weigh in on gun law

Updated: November 20, 2019 09:20 AM

Dozens of police chiefs and sheriffs around the state say they would support a controversial measure that would temporarily take guns away from people who are deemed a threat to themselves or others.

The measure – commonly referred to as a red flag law – is currently in place in 17 states. A similar bill stalled in Minnesota earlier this year.

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With lawmakers likely taking up the measure again during the next legislative session in February, 5 INVESTIGATES asked more than 200 police chiefs and sheriffs where they stand on red flag legislation, as well as other potential changes to gun laws.

Laws regulating assault-style rifles and magazine capacities received minimal support from the 60 law enforcement leaders who did respond. However, more than three dozen chiefs and sheriffs, roughly two out of every three, said they would support a red flag law that would give their officers the power to temporarily confiscate weapons from someone in crisis with a judge's order.

"Red flag laws, I think, would be enormously helpful to families and law enforcement," said Bill Sullivan, the long-time police chief in Oakdale.

The majority of those surveyed did not respond to multiple requests to weigh in on the controversial issue, including the chiefs of police in Minneapolis and St. Paul, as well as the elected sheriffs in Hennepin and Ramsey Counties.

Sheriff Scott Goddard in rural Crow Wing County said that while the idea of such a law is good in theory, he would not support it because it would create more conflict.

"My concern with the red flag is I think we are going to butt heads more," Goddard said. "I think the concept is a very good concept, but I think the actual application is very difficult to do."

Local researchers release largest study on mass shootings

The debate over red flags will likely be spurred by a nationwide study that will be released this week that found four out of every five mass shooters showed previous signs of concerning behavior, mental health issues or violence.

The study, which was funded in part by the Department of Justice, was conducted by researchers with The Violence Project at Hamline University in St. Paul and offers a glimpse into the common traits shared among mass shooters. 

Dr. Jillian Peterson, a professor at Hamline University, interviewed mass shooters from prison and studied a half-century worth of mass shootings

"I mean, we've had shootings that we covered where 60 different kids knew it was going to happen before it happened," Peterson said in an interview with 5 INVESTIGATES last month.

The Hamline research mirrors another study released earlier this month by the United States Secret Service that found most school shooters had a history of being bullied or disciplined or engaged in troubling behavior that had not been reported.


5 INVESTIGATES sent the survey to 228 departments in Minnesota. Of that number, 58 departments responded, for a 26% response rate. Here's where the departments that responded stand on a red flag law in Minnesota:


After the Sandy Hook shooting in 2012, the Crow Wing County Sheriff's Office developed a special team, typically dressed in less intimidating plain clothes, that responds to calls of someone making threats to harm themselves or others. Goddard calls it a softer approach in an effort to get people to voluntarily hand over weapons without infringing on due process.

"I'm very proud of our program," Goddard said, who also views this issue through his own personal experience. He was shot in the arm during a standoff in 2013.

"But I never blamed the gun that shot me, and I never blamed the person who shot me. He was having a mental health crisis," he said.

Peterson says, even with Violence Project's new findings, the passion on both sides will determine how the research is received.

"So much of these conversations are so emotionally charged — peoples' heels are dug in so deep. It's become so polarizing and so partisan that the goal was to create data because data is the data. It's not opinionated. It just is what it is."


Ryan Raiche can be reached by phone at 651-642-4544 or by email here.


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Ryan Raiche

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