Before Nikolas Cruz used a semi-automatic weapon to open fire last week at his former high school in Parkland, Florida, killing 17 people and wounding at least 15 others, a tipster called the FBI to warn them he might carry out an attack.
While FBI officials said Friday that investigators did not act on that tip, Florida is one of more than a dozen states considering a law that would allow authorities to seize guns before potentially violent people carry out attacks.
Lawmakers in California, Washington, Oregon, Indiana and Connecticut already have their own versions of gun violence restraining orders, laws that temporarily restrict firearms and ammunition possession and purchases for people a judge finds to be a threat to themselves or others.
Similar restraining orders are proposed in 22 other states and the District of Columbia, according to Shannon Frattaroli at The Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. Florida is one of those states. Florida’s House Bill 231, introduced in January, would allow family members or law enforcement to ask a judge for a firearms restraining order on someone that they believe may soon injure themselves or another person, but a hearing for the proposal has not yet been scheduled.
The day after the shooting, its sponsor, Florida Democratic state Rep. Lori Berman, wrote a letter to state House leadership urging them to hold hearings on her bill.
“It is time we give family and friends a process to ensure if they do indeed say something, something can and will be done,” she wrote in the letter.
Cruz, who has been charged with 17 counts of premeditated murder, left hints that he was a violent young man, according to early reports from investigators. Classmates at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School say the 19-year-old posted pictures of guns and left comments about killing people with his AR-15 on social media. Other reports suggested he wanted to be a “professional school shooter,” which caught the attention of the FBI.
He was expelled last year after threatening students, according to Broward County Sheriff Scott Israel. Cruz’s family knew he had at least one gun and was dealing with mental health issues, according to the family’s lawyer.
“There are many cases in which there are signals being sent that shouldn’t be ignored,” said Daniel Webster, director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research. “This could be a way to remove guns from a person who appears to be preparing something violent, even against themselves.”
Following the attack, one of the deadliest school shootings in the U.S., some Democrats are already renewing calls for a federal gun violence restraining order, which was proposed last May. California Rep. Salud Carbajal said in a statement Thursday that “temporarily preventing people from having a gun while in a state of crisis saves lives.”
State and federal gun laws across the country largely focus on stopping violent or potentially threatening people from buying a gun. But gun violence restraining orders, or GVROs, are meant to take guns out of the hands of people who already have them and stop them from getting new ones until a judge decides they are no longer a threat.
The National Rifle Association opposes GVRO legislation, saying it infringes on an individual’s right to “provide a mechanism for an individual to lose the right to keep and bear arms with no due process of law.” The NRA did not respond to a request for comment.
Florida gun rights lawyer Jon Gutmacher said GVROs are “not worth the paper they’re printed on.” He suggested that a determined offender will ignore an order and instead thinks counseling is the best approach. “These people have deep-seated issues and they require mandatory treatment,” he said.
Many states already allow authorities to seize firearms in domestic violence or stalking cases.
GVROs allow close family members or law enforcement to ask a judge for a firearms restraining order on someone that they believe may soon injure themselves or another person. Domestic violence, substance abuse, mental illness and threats are also criteria for a gun restriction order.
Webster said there isn’t a Second Amendment issue since GVROs are not permanent. “It’s the same process that courts have to go through with domestic violence, and it’s not a lifetime prohibition of guns,” he said. “It allows law enforcement to act for a temporary period of time when that person and that situation could be more thoroughly evaluated.”
After an order is issued, usually without the knowledge of the subject, a hearing is scheduled within two or three weeks to either terminate the order or extend it up to a year.
In Connecticut, the first state to adopt a GVRO, only law enforcement can ask for warrants. In Indiana, police don’t even need a warrant. Instead, the gun owner has to ask a judge to get the weapons back. California, Washington and Oregon are the only states that extend warrant requests to family members.
Duke University researchers found that police in Connecticut issued 762 “risk warrants” between 1999 and 2013. Police recovered guns in 99 percent of the cases, with most of the instances involving a threat of suicide.
Nearly 60 percent of gun deaths in the United States are from suicide, not homicide.
It’s difficult to know in retrospect if a GVRO-like law could have prevented Cruz from carrying out his attack since there are so many ways to obtain guns, according to Jonathan Metzl, psychiatrist and gun violence expert at Vanderbilt University.
“It’s impossible to know whether or not one specific intervention would have stopped someone like this who was so determined,” Metzl said. “It’s too easy for them to get a gun by many different avenues because simply we have too many guns and too many loopholes.”