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Expert: Red Flag laws could have stopped the Parkland shooting

PARKLAND, Florida — On February 14, 2018, Nikolas Cruz opened fire at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, killing 17 people and injuring 17 more.

Though shocking, experts say, Cruz’s actions were not without warning. Family members and neighbors had expressed concerns about Cruz’s stability for years before the shooting. Police records show that he was the subject of more than a dozen 911 calls. Perhaps the most damning piece of evidence: at least two people called the FBI with concerns that Cruz was going to shoot up a school.

But before the Parkland shooting, Cruz didn’t have a felony conviction. He hadn’t been officially adjudicated as mentally ill. And under 2018 Florida law, Cruz’s Instagram, Snapchat and YouTube posts about “becoming a professional school shooter” weren’t considered legally actionable threats.

“In federal law, there are only a couple of categories where someone can fall into what is called a ‘prohibited persons’ category for firearm restrictions. Those categories are pretty narrow,” said Monica Bellenger, a health policy expert with Action Utah. “Even though Nickolas Cruz had exhibited disturbing and dangerous behavior to several individuals … he did not fall into a ‘prohibited persons’ status.”

Bellenger said this gap in the law — that only people with existing records of domestic violence or felony charges could legally have their access to guns restricted — prevented police and the FBI from taking proactive measures in Parkland.

“There wasn’t any legal mechanism for law enforcement to legally remove his firearms and legally prohibit him from having access to them for any specified period of time,” Bellenger said. “Law enforcement in the Parkland, Florida case may have been able to see if there had been some other kind of criminal charge that they could have charged Nicholas Cruz with… However, they were legally limited as to what they could do to restrict his access to firearms without an ERPO.”

Extreme Risk Protective Orders, or ERPOs, are an early intervention mechanism that allows families and law enforcement to petition the courts to temporarily suspend access to guns by people they believe pose a threat to themselves or others. Concerned community members make their case based on their loved one’s words and behaviors, not their criminal records, which removes much of the red tape preventing proactive behavior.

“Family members and law enforcement officers are often those people that are in the best position to be able to recognize the warning signs and behaviors when someone’s behavior becomes violent or dangerous,” Bellenger said. ERPOs empower those people to act on their instincts in times of crisis.

In the aftermath of the tragedy at Stoneman Douglas, Florida implemented a “red flag law” allowing for the issue of ERPOs. As of January 2019, 13 states have red flag laws on the book. Several other states, including Utah, are considering passing similar laws for the legislative session.

“In most states that have passed these laws, they have passed after tragic horrible events have occurred,” Bellenger said. “I think now there is an understanding that sometimes it’s better to be proactive, and to try to incorporate these policies which we know are effective.”

“Firearm deaths are preventable,” she finished. “They are not inevitable.”

Utah Rep. Stephen Handy,  Layton, is currently sponsoring a red flag bill, H.B. 209 “Extreme Risk Protective Order,” backed by the JayMac News Show.

Host Jay Mcfarland broadcast his show live from the State Capitol earlier this week to raise awareness about Handy’s bill and also ask and answer questions about what it would do and what it would not do.

You can join the conversation online by using #gunwatch or by getting text updates about the bill if you text GUNS to 57500.