Warning Signs Weren’t Enough to Stop Suspect's Gun Buy in Florida
SACRAMENTO, Calif. — The warnings around Nikolas Cruz seemed to flash like neon signs: expelled from school, fighting with classmates, a fascination with weapons and hurting animals, disturbing images and comments posted to social media, previous mental health treatment.
In Florida, that wasn’t enough for relatives, authorities or his school to request a judicial order barring him from possessing guns.
Only five states have laws allowing family members, guardians or police to ask judges to temporarily strip gun rights from people who show warning signs of violence. Supporters of the measures, deemed “red flag laws” or gun violence restraining orders, say they can save lives by stopping some shootings and suicides.
Florida, where Cruz is accused of using an AR-15 rifle to kill 17 people at his former high school, does not have such a law. He was able to legally own the semi-automatic rifle even though his mother, classmates and teachers had at times described him as dangerous and threatening.
Red flag legislation was introduced last fall in Florida by Democratic lawmakers, but its fate is uncertain in a state Legislature controlled by Republicans who generally favor expanding gun rights. After Wednesday’s shooting at a high school in Parkland, a suburb north of Miami, Republican Gov. Rick Scott said he will work to make sure people with mental illnesses don’t have access to guns but offered no specifics.
In 2014, California became the first state to let family members ask a judge to remove firearms from a relative who appears to pose a threat. It was passed after a mentally ill man, Elliot Rodger, killed six University of California, Santa Barbara, students and wounded 13 other people near the campus before killing himself.
The law also allows police to petition for the protective orders, which can require firearms to be removed for up to one year. Connecticut, Indiana, Oregon and Washington are the other states with some version of a red flag law.
More than a dozen others, including Hawaii, New Jersey and Missouri, are considering bills that would allow family members or police to petition the courts if they want weapons taken from an individual showing signs of mental distress or violence.
The Florida shooting also has revived debate about whether teachers and school administrators should have that authority as well, given that people at Cruz’s high school witnessed much of his erratic behavior.
California lawmakers voted to expand their law in 2016 so that high school and college personnel, co-workers and mental health professionals can seek the restraining orders, but Gov. Jerry Brown called the effort premature and vetoed it.
State Assemblyman Phil Ting, a San Francisco Democrat, said he plans to reintroduce the bill.
“We need to make sure that when people see signs, they have every ability to do something about getting guns out of the hands of mentally ill and dangerous people,” Ting told The Associated Press.
Circumstances similar to those in Florida played out seven years ago in the shooting of an Arizona congresswoman. Jared Loughner had become increasingly disruptive and erratic at his community college in the months leading up to the shooting, frightening students and causing teachers to request campus police officers be on hand during his classes. Eventually, the school threatened him with suspension.
Soon after, he went to a gun store and legally bought the weapon he used in the attack outside a grocery store where Rep. Gabrielle Giffords was meeting constituents. Loughner shot Giffords in the head and killed six people.
In the absence of red flag laws, the main recourse available to family members is to have their troubled loved one committed to a psychiatric institution. Federal law permanently bans anyone who has been involuntary committed from owning guns, but such actions are more difficult to carry out than red flag laws, which are intended to be quick and temporary and have a lower standard of proof.
Without a commitment, formal adjudication of serious mental illness or a felony conviction, many people can pass background checks and possess guns they already own.
The red flag laws act as a sort of timeout so someone in psychological distress can get counseling while their fitness to possess a gun is evaluated, said Laura Cutilletta, legal director of the Giffords Law Center.
“It’s a way to allow for temporary removal of firearms in a situation just like this: where somebody has made threats, where they have been expelled from school because of those threats, they’re in counseling, and parents or the school or whoever it is understands that this person poses a threat,” she said.
Many gun-rights activists oppose the laws. They say they can be used to unfairly take away rights from people who have not been convicted of crimes or professionally evaluated for mental illness.
The National Rifle Association’s lobbying arm has said such laws allow courts to remove Second Amendment rights “based on third-party allegations and evidentiary standards” that are lower than what’s required in criminal proceedings.
Connecticut led the way with a 1999 law, passed after an employee shot and killed four executives at the state Lottery headquarters. It allows police to remove guns based on probable cause that a person poses a “risk of imminent personal injury.”
In a study published last year, researchers at Duke, Yale, Connecticut and Virginia estimated that dozens of suicides have been prevented by the law, roughly one for every 10 gun seizures carried out. They said such laws “could significantly mitigate the risk” posed by the small number of legal gun owners who might suddenly pose a significant danger.
Foley reported from Iowa City, Iowa.
Associated Press writers Jonathan J. Cooper in Sacramento, Brendan Farrington in Tallahassee, Florida, and Lisa Marie Pane in Atlanta contributed to this report.