The Law That Could Stop the Next Charleston

In the aftermath of almost every mass shooting in recent decades, there is someone – or multiple individuals – who knew that the perpetrator was a threat to themselves or others. In almost as many cases, someone attempted to remove access to firearms from the person before the act. And in almost every one of those cases, that attempt failed and mass death was visited on an American community.

Cheryl Stumbo, a survivor of the Jewish Federation of Greater Seattle shooting in 2006, told of a father’s grief at being powerless to prevent a disaster:

These killings can be prevented by a simple tool that empowers families and law enforcement: Gun Violence Restraining Orders. Also known as Extreme Risk Protection Orders or “Red Flag” orders, these Orders take advantage of a very simple fact: the vast majority of mass shooters tell other people of their plans to kill before comming their crimes.

Gun Violence Restraining Orders allow family members and law enforcement to seek a court order from a judge that temporarily removes access to firearms if their is documented evidence that a person is threatening themselves or others. The Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence went in-depth on this policy after California passed Gun Violence Restraining Orders in August 2014:

Those in the best position to see and recognize these warning signs—immediate family members—are left without legal means to intervene. The GVRO law addresses this glaring problem by allowing concerned family members, as well as law enforcement officers, to obtain a Gun Violence Restraining Order, which is modeled on California’s effective domestic violence prevention laws.

In fact, a majority – 61% – of mass shooters over the last thirty years gave indications of their intentions or mental health difficulties prior to committing their killings. But families, friends, and law enforcement were powerless to temporarily remove firearms from those at extreme risk of harming themselves or others. As the New York Daily News reported, these circumstances played a direct role in the Charleston shooting:

A friend, Joseph Meek, 20, told the Daily News he had taken the .45 Glock away from Roof two weeks ago after Roof went on a drunken, bigoted rant about segregation and killing people. ‘He said he was planning for about six months to do something crazy,’ said Meek, who is white…Meek said he took the gun away but, prompted by his own legal troubles, returned it the next day. ‘I only took it away because he was drunk. I didn’t take him seriously,’ Meek said. ‘I do feel a little guilty because I could have let someone know.’

The absence of a Gun Violence Restraining Order-like law left no other option than for a firearm to be put back in the hands of Dylann Roof.

This nightmare outcome has been repeated throughout the country. Before the Isla Vista shooting, Elliot Rodger believed the arrival of police would end his plans for mass violence – but police lacked the authority to temporarily remove his firearms:

Last month, officers visited Rodger, 22, who they say killed six people and himself Friday night, at his apartment in Isla Vista, California. ‘I had the striking and devastating fear that someone had somehow discovered what I was planning to do, and reported me for it,’ Rodger wrote toward the end of a 137-page account of his life. ‘If that was the case, the police would have searched my room, found all of my guns and weapons, along with my writings about what I plan to do with them.’…Rodger’s family contacted police after discovering social media posts about suicide and killing people…There was nothing in his behavior to suggest he was violent, and the deputies ‘determined he did not meet the criteria for an involuntary hold,’ Brown said. Rodger wrote that a wave of relief came over him when the deputies left. ‘If they had demanded to search my room … (t)hat would have ended everything. For a few horrible seconds, I thought it was all over.'”

In Washington State, people like Walt Stawicki – whose son murdered five at a coffee house known as “Cafe Racer” – have outright said these Orders could have prevented the attack:

“The tragedies that ruptured our lives—the attack on Cafe Racer three years ago and on the Jewish Federation of Greater Seattle in 2006—led us to become advocates for strengthening Washington’s gun laws. We’ve pursued different paths in the years since we became survivors. But we both support Extreme Risk Protection Orders because those shootings might never have occurred if family members had this path to intervene.”

It isn’t just mass shootings, either. In Washington State, Zoe Anne Moore testified how that state’s proposed Extreme Risk Protection Orders law could have helped prevent her daughter Dana’s suicide:

“I wish something like this was out, Extreme Risk [Protection] Orders…because I think she would have made it.” – Zoe Ann Moore on her late daughter, Dana

California ignored opposition from the gun lobby following the Isla Vista shooting to pass its Gun Violence Restraining Order bill, becoming the third state with such a law in place. Other states, such as Washington State, are seeing these Orders introduced, though the gun lobby is mounting a fierce campaign to stem legislative progress:

“We have due process concerns…as well as a general philosophical opposition.” – Brian Judy, NRA

The gun lobby has a general philosophical opposition to precisely the type of legislation that would empower families and law enforcement to stop the next Dylann Roof, Elliot Rodger, Ian Stawicki, and Naveed Haq. Tragedies of all types can be prevented by Gun Violence Restraining Orders because they embody a simple principle: if we empower families and law enforcement to respond to crises they see coming, we stand a better chance of preventing those crises from becoming calamities in our society.

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