What laws could have stopped the Highland Park shooting?

  • In US
  • 2022-07-06 23:00:17Z
  • By The Hill

The Independence Day shooting in Highland Park, Ill., has put the spotlight on loopholes in federal and state gun laws as well as a lack of robust implementation that limits their effectiveness in preventing gun violence.

The 21-year-old man accused of shooting and killing seven people and wounding dozens more on Monday slipped past Illinois' red flag laws and legally obtained a high-powered rifle similar to an AR-15, raising questions about both the law and those sworn to uphold it.

"Illinois has this law on the books and it's on the books for exactly the scenario that we saw in Highland Park," said Shannon Frattaroli, a professor in the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Violence Solutions.

Red flag laws, also known as extreme risk protection orders, allow a judge to take away a firearm from someone based on the suspicion that the owner could use it to harm themselves or others. Family members, police, or doctors, have to petition the court to take away the firearm and that can result in police removing it for up to a year.

The Illinois law has been on the books since 2018, while the new gun safety measure was approved by Congress last month. It was the most sweeping gun control legislation passed by Congress in nearly three decades, and was focused on red-flag laws, allocating millions to help states administer the laws.

But it's unclear it would have made a difference if it had been in place before the Highland Park shooting, and the Illinois law did not prevent the shootings.

The man arrested in Illinois, Robert Crimo III, was able to legally buy a gun despite two encounters with the police in 2019. In one encounter, he had attempted to commit suicide.

Outside experts point to the problem of how the laws are actually enforced or implemented by local officials.

"I think the issue for red flag laws - extreme risk protection orders - the devil's in the details of how they get implemented. Right now, they exist and they exist in a lot of different forms across different states," said Charles Branas, professor of epidemiology in the Columbia University Scientific Union for the Reduction of Gun Violence.

"The big takeaway for me from the Illinois experience, as is the case for so many of these mass shootings and quite frankly so many of the shootings and deaths that don't capture national attention, is implementation," Frattaroli said.

Nineteen states and Washington, D.C., have red flag laws, including GOP-led states like Florida and Indiana. The new federal law includes $750 million to incentivize other states to pass them.

Branas argued that national action towards red flag laws would be better than leaving them to the states. He also called for a similar model across the country.

Yet even with a stronger national model and better implementation, Eugene Volokh, the University of California-Los Angeles's expert in firearms regulation policy, argued that the black market for firearm purchases provides a loophole that is not easy to crack down on.

"People ask could this have been stopped with a red flag law? And the answer is nobody could be sure if it could be stopped. At most, what a red flag does it is causes the seizure of a weapon and prevents somebody from lawfully buying a weapon in the future," he said, adding that someone could then just go buy a gun illegally.

"You can't really stop someone simply by this kind of proceeding," he added.

Proponents of the red-flag laws argue that if properly implemented, they could have stopped Monday's shooting in Highland Park.

"The fact is red flag laws do work, we have a mountain of evidence that shows that, but it's an imperfect tool," said Noah Lumbantobing, spokesperson for March for Our Lives. "You've got to train local officials on its use, you've got to make the public aware that it's a tool available to them if they're worried about the safety of a loved one."

Red-flag laws can be critical tools in lowering the number of suicides, experts say.

At the same time, many advocates say the best way to really reduce mass shootings would be for the government to reimpose an assault weapons ban or impose controls on large capacity magazines and ammunition.

"In our view, it's clear a nationwide assault weapons ban would have prevented this," Lumbantobing said.

Biden has called on Congress to ban assault weapons since he first entered office, but a ban is very unlikely to pass the Senate anytime soon given GOP opposition. Democrats now holding a majority would need 10 Republicans to vote with them to overcome the 60-vote threshold to advance most legislation. Without Republican support, all 50 Democratic senators would need to support changing the Senate filibuster rule, which Sens. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) and Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) are opposed to.

Large capacity magazines can be put into handguns to allow the shooter to fire more rounds. The suspect on Monday allegedly fired more than 70 bullets from a roof of a local business through a fire escape ladder.

Branas argued an executive action could get high-capacity magazines off the streets, but it could take the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (ATF) being given more regulatory control.

"They could be made to have the actual regulatory teeth that they were originally intended to have and that might be the opportunity to executive action on things like high-capacity magazines and ammunition," Branas said. "A more robust ATF could really go far here."

The bottom line, say gun control groups, is that the nation's laws are simply too weak to really stop gun violence, even with the new gun safety measure and more red-flag laws.

"I think what's really important to remember is our federal gun laws are extremely weak. The bipartisan bill is absolutely a concrete important, critical step forward on that but there's a lot of work to be done on that," said Robin Lloyd, Giffords' managing director.

"Our federal gun laws are so riddled with loopholes," she added. "It doesn't have to be this way but in order for this not to be this way, we have to do a lot."

For the latest news, weather, sports, and streaming video, head to The Hill.


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