BOSTON — Far fewer people have seen their weapons seized by police under the state's "red flag" law, according to new state data.

The law was used to confiscate firearms belonging to nine people last year, a decline of more than 50% from the previous year, when 22 so-called "extreme risk protection orders" were issued, according to the state Trial Court.

In all, there have been 39 extreme risk petitions filed under the 2018 law.

The law, passed in the wake of school shootings nationally, allows police, friends or relatives of a legal gun owner to seek an order if they believe that person poses a risk to themselves or others. The order gives police authority to temporarily confiscate someone's firearms and ammunition.

Supporters of the red-flag law say they're not sure why the numbers of cases declined last year but say the law is working as intended.

"If it saves just one life the law is successful," said Ruth Zakarin, executive director of the Massachusetts Coalition to Prevent Gun Violence. "The whole point of the law is that it helps save lives by allowing families concerned about the safety of a loved one to temporarily remove the guns while they get them help."

Courthouses were closed to the public last year due to precautions to prevent spread of the coronavirus, which likely deterred some people from filing requests.

Zakarin said many people don't know about the new law, which is likely another factor.

Critics of the red-flag law say they, too, aren't sure why the numbers of requests dropped so substantially.

"It hasn't been used much, but who knows why?" said Jim Wallace, executive director of the Gun Owners’ Action League, the Massachusetts affiliate of the National Rifle Association. "It's a terribly written law, to begin with."

Wallace said the law lacks due process and threatens Second Amendment rights, and it doesn't provide any extra mental health resources to prevent suicides.

"This was never really about preventing suicides," he said. "It was just another attack on lawful gun owners."

Similar to the process for a violence prevention order, those asking for an order under the red-flag law must show evidence someone intends to harm themselves or others. Individuals subject to an order can appeal.

Someone who seeks an order based on false information or to harass a gun owner can face fines from $2,500 to $5,000, and up to 2 1/2 years in jail. The Trial Court's data show that none of the requests filed to date have been deemed fraudulent.

At least 28 of the ERPO cases to date were emergency orders, meaning that firearms were confiscated by police prior to them appearing before a judge.

Most involved white men. Other details — such as names, addresses and the type and amount of weapons seized — were not disclosed.

Christian M. Wade covers the Massachusetts Statehouse for The Salem News and its sister newspapers and websites. Email him at cwade@cnhi.com.

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