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Red-Flag Orders Skyrocket in New York City After State Strengthened Gun Laws

Allowed by law since 2019, Emergency Risk Protection Orders that bar certain people from buying guns were barely used. That changed in August.

January 14, 2023 Greg B. Smith, The City
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One night this past May, a father and son sat inside a Midtown Manhattan German beer hall chatting when the son began to grow furious for no apparent reason. Suddenly he exploded: “I will kill you with this beer glass. I will smash your head and face,” he yelled at his father.

As the father pulled out his cell phone to record the exchange, the son snatched it away and fled.

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When the father filed a complaint with the police, he made it clear that his son was unstable, had threatened to kill him and others and had been actively trying to obtain a gun. His son was arrested not long after, on a domestic violence petit larceny charge on June 2.

At the time, law enforcement could have deemed the son a risk to himself and others and applied for an Emergency Risk Protection Order, commonly known as a “red flag” order. If approved by a judge, the ERPO would have allowed law enforcement to seize any firearms in the son’s possession and bar him from obtaining new ones for a year.

Despite the fact that such orders have been on the books in New York since 2019, they were rarely used by police or district attorneys in New York City. Former Manhattan DA Cyrus Vance, who was in office through 2021, never applied for one.

His successor, Alvin Bragg, followed suit. That didn’t change with the arrest of the son who threatened to kill his father, despite the father’s insistence that his son was a threat and was trying to obtain firearms.

“I was like, ‘What does it take? This guy has been in and out of mental hospitals for years,’” said the father, who spoke to THE CITY on the condition of anonymity to protect his son. “I said, ‘You want a perfect textbook case of the next killer?’”

Four days after the son’s arrest, the dynamic shifted.

In the aftermath of the horrific mass shooting in Buffalo, Gov. Kathy Hochul announced her support for a package of gun reform laws that, for the first time, required prosecutors and police to request a red-flag order for anyone who they determine is likely to seriously harm themselves or others.

A few months later in October, Bragg went back to court and got such an order against the son.

Red Flags Rising

In New York City and across the state, the new requirement has already led to a dramatic rise in ERPOs.

Before the Aug. 1 implementation, New York City district attorneys had obtained a total of six red-flag orders over four years. In the months since the new law took effect, the count is now up to 53, according to court records examined by THE CITY, including 35 from Staten Island District Attorney Michael McMahon.

Statewide, there had been 1,464 applications by DAs and police for ERPOs in the four years before the racist massacre in Buffalo, with Suffolk County by far filing the most. In the five months following the Buffalo tragedy, there have been 3,549 applications.

The purpose of the red-flag orders is to prevent shootings before they happen.

Mayor Eric Adams speaks at Gov. Kathy Hochul’s Midtown office about the new gun-free zone in Times Square, Aug. 31, 2022.
Mayor Eric Adams speaks at Gov. Kathy Hochul’s Midtown office about the new gun-free zone in Times Square, Aug. 31, 2022. | Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

In several recent cases, unstable individuals — almost always young men — had been able to obtain guns despite having prior histories of suicidal ideation or threats against others.

That was the case with the massacre that inspired the change in the law. On May 14, an 18-year-old white supremacist killed 10 Black people at a Buffalo supermarket. Months before his carefully planned assault, the shooter had written in a school essay that he planned to conduct a mass shooting and then kill himself. Though the state police were made aware of this, no red-flag order was pursued, and the shooter was able to purchase the weapons he used in his hateful attack without a problem.

He later pleaded guilty to multiple murder counts and a first-degree domestic terrorism charge, which mandates a sentence of life without parole. He is scheduled to be sentenced next month.

‘Very Actively Looking to Get a Gun’

In the case of the father and son, the father says the threat was made abundantly clear to the police and the DA months before the DA eventually sought an Emergency Risk Protective Order.

Last week the father, 62, spoke to THE CITY of his frustrations with law enforcement as he tried to obtain help for his 26-year-old son, who was diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome and had been in and out of psychiatric wards for years.

In heartbreaking terms, the father recounted the volatile history that led up to his son’s arrest.

By the night of the confrontation at the beer hall, the son had threatened to kill his father several times, the father said. On the day of his arrest, the son told a detective he would stab his father if he saw him again, court papers state.

“He was actively, and I mean very actively, looking to get a gun,” the father said.

Early last year, the father says his son “was in an argument with someone he knew. He was actively looking to kill the guy and his family. He showed me texts [sent to the intended victim] saying ‘I’m going to kill your daughter in front of you.’”

The son had told the father he’d tried and failed to get a special Illinois state ID when he lived in Chicago that would allow him to buy a gun. He also told his father that a drug dealer offered to connect him to someone who could sell him a gun in Pennsylvania.

In the summer of 2021, his son was living in Chicago but had lost his job and was isolated and struggling during the pandemic. After the son told his father he’d unsuccessfully tried to kill himself by downing a bottle of vodka with a fistful of sleeping pills, the father convinced him to return to New York.

Who Can Help?

Back in New York, the father tried to get his son into a program that would monitor him and perhaps address his growing number of threats against people he felt had wronged him. At a Manhattan TD Bank, for instance, the son had slammed a glass entry door so hard it shattered because he was angry that a teller hadn’t handled his request fast enough.

The relationship between father and was now “on and off, on and off,” the father recalled. “We tried to get him help. We tried to get him into a program. We find out he was rejected from the program for making misogynistic comments. We were not speaking.”

By the night at the beer hall, the son seemed to be improving. As the two sat sipping beer, he told his father he had a new girlfriend who wanted to meet him. His father offered to take them to dinner at a Japanese restaurant they’d dined at previously.

Then the tenor of the conversation suddenly shifted, the father says.

The son insisted they’d never been to that restaurant, and demanded they bet $50 on whether that was true. The father said he had photos but told the son he couldn’t find them on his phone.

The son exploded in a rage, threatening to smash a beer glass into his father’s face, and when the father brought out his cell to record the interaction, the son grabbed it from him and ran out of the restaurant. The father then went to the police.

“I told them this guy has psychiatric problems. He’s dangerous. He’s a known danger to himself and others. He’s been trying to get a gun,” the father said. “I made it clear it’s not the phone I’m worried about. He’s still crazed and he’s off his medication. He has to be held accountable. And I’m heartbroken as a father, but he needs to be punished for this.”

The father said he told the detectives to get his son’s phone to find texts referencing his plans to kill people. He believed that would help prevent his son from getting a firearm.

The father said he asked law enforcement for three things: an order of protection, an order barring his son from obtaining a firearm, and a promise that his son would not have to go to jail but, instead, be put on probation so he could be monitored.

At that point, a detective warned him, “The court’s not going to help. I can’t help him get the help he needs.”

Order Approved

At the time, the Manhattan DA was not filing for red-flag orders, and when the cops arrested his son on June 2 there was no discussion of doing that.

“I feel that this should be implemented when it should be implemented and we shouldn’t have to make a strenuous, herculean effort to apply it to people who need it to be applied to,” said the father.

In response to questions from THE CITY, a spokesperson for Bragg claimed the DA’s office was unaware of the son’s attempts to obtain firearms, stating, “The Manhattan D.A.’s Office was not informed of any active, imminent attempts to obtain a gun at the time of [the son’s] arrest, but worked to secure an ERPO as part of a disposition that holds him accountable and bars him from owning guns, while ensuring he gets the treatment he needs.”

Two weeks after Hochul signed off on the new law, the DA summoned the father for a meeting. Now for the first time they were discussing requesting an Emergency Risk Protection Order against the son. This would be the office’s first such request since the red-flag law went into effect in 2019.

On Oct. 20 an order was approved barring the son from purchasing a gun for a year. The DA agreed to dismiss the domestic violence petit larceny charge with the caveat that it would be reinstated if the son committed any crimes within the next year, the father says. The son was also ordered to meet weekly with a mental health professional for six months.

Threats and Attacks

Most of the records of the 52 red flag orders requested by New York City district attorneys and the NYPD since August are sealed. But of those where THE CITY could determine what triggered the requests, five involved individuals with mental health issues, one simply involved illegal firearms possession, and 11 involved domestic violence.

Besides the son who threatened to kill his father, Manhattan DA Bragg has pursued red-flag orders against a city comptroller employee who threatened his co-workers, a mentally ill young man who bought a gun in Pennsylvania and was allegedly involved in a plot to attack synagogues, and a mentally ill man who showed his girlfriend a handgun during an argument.

In other boroughs, some ERPO applications were triggered by physical attacks, while others involved a pattern of threats.

One red-flag order obtained in August by Brooklyn District Attorney Eric Gonzalez, for instance, involved a man who’d repeatedly threatened to text explicit photos of his ex-girlfriend to others.

In several cases where the ERPO application is sealed, THE CITY was able to find criminal cases related to the targets of the red-flag requests.

On Staten Island, DA McMahon appears to be utilizing the orders as an extra tool when prosecuting domestic violence.

One man who threatened to kill his girlfriend claimed to have a gun. In another case, police found “ghost guns” under a man’s bed and in his dresser after his girlfriend had called 911 to report he’d attacked her, grabbing her by the throat and yelling “I just want to hurt you!”

Some involved incidents with mental health implications, such as the man who in July threatened strangers with a knife outside Staten Island Hospital and then barricaded himself inside a construction trailer when police arrived. His lawyer said he was delusional after smoking K2.

In another case that month, a 40-year-old man pushed a 78-year-old man to the ground outside the ferry terminal in Staten Island, police say. Prosecutors allege he then took the man’s cane and beat him with it.

Police say when the attacker was arrested, he claimed the senior had been “following me.”

Seeking Prevention

McMahon — who’d filed zero red-flag orders before the updated law went into effect — now praises the new tool as a means of potentially stopping a crime before it happens.

“An essential element to running a 21st century prosecutor’s office is the fundamental understanding that a crime prevented is better than a crime prosecuted,” McMahon said.

“ERPOs may prove to be an effective tool in our arsenal in preventing gun violence, and with multiple [assistant DAs] dedicated to their successful execution, we believe they can,” he stated, in response to THE CITY’s questions.

But McMahon also called the new requirement imposed by the state an “unfunded mandate,” asserting that “the state did not give New York City prosecutors a dime.”

McMahon said in the coming session, the five New York City district attorneys will press Albany for “funding to enable us to do our job and meet the demands placed on us by Albany.”

As for the father who sought a red-flag order for his son, he says he now has triple locks on his door and is always “looking over my shoulder.” He says he does not know where his son is staying or whether he’s getting the help that was ordered by the court.

“I made it clear it would help me if I knew he’s getting treatment but they were never able to provide me with that information,” he said.

The red-flag order on his son expires in late October. The father said he’s already thinking about asking for an extension, but mostly he wants his son to get the help he needs.

“I don’t think [my son] is going to change and that he is still capable of coming to kill me,” he said. “[My son] needs help and I think we have a duty, just as normal citizens if you recognize or sense something, to do something. We’re going to end up saving some innocent lives.”

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