Buffalo massacre highlights how mass shooters are able to obtain weapons legally

New York Gov. Kathy Hochul took steps Wednesday to strengthen the state’s “red flag” law after an accused gunman in the Buffalo massacre bought the weapon used in the attack despite being held for a mental health evaluation last year. Hamline University criminal justice professor Jillian Peterson, a forensic psychologist and co-founder of The Violence Project, joins John Yang to discuss.

Read the Full Transcript

  • Judy Woodruff:

    New York's Governor Kathy Hochul took steps today that she said would strengthen the state's red flag law.

    It comes after authorities said the accused gunman in the Buffalo massacre bought the weapon he used despite being held for a mental health evaluation last year after saying that he would commit murder/suicide.

    As John Yang reports, this has raised questions about the effectiveness of laws that are designed to get weapons out of the hands of those who may be a threat to themselves or others.

  • John Yang:

    Judy, when the accused gunman was evaluated, he said his remark was a joke to get out of class.

    Authorities said they determined he wasn't dangerous. They released him, and they never barred him from having a firearm under New York's red flag law. Last November, he began writing on a messaging platform about his plans for a racist shooting spree.

    "My parents know little about me. They don't know about the hundreds of dollars I have spent on ammo. They don't even know I own a shotgun or an AR-15 or illegal magazines."

    Later, he wrote: "I lied to them for months now."

    This all renews a basic question: Is there a way to detect and deter mass shooters before they act?

    Jillian Peterson is a forensic psychologist. She's co-founder of The Violence Project, which focuses on mass shootings. She's also an associate professor of criminology and criminal justice at Hamline University.

    Jillian Peterson, thanks for joining us.

    The prosecutor in the county where the accused shooter went to high school defended the outcome of that mental evaluation by saying that he did not have a long history of mental illness, that this was the one isolated incident.

    What he said and everything else that we're learning, what does this say about the effectiveness of red flag laws?

  • Jillian Peterson, The Violence Project:

    You know, it's pretty complicated. And we see this again and again in the lives of perpetrators, is that they're leaking their plans, they're actively suicidal, they're telling other people that they're thinking about doing this, and the intervention just doesn't occur.

    So I think it goes to show, you can have these red flag laws on the books that could be very effective if they were put into place, but you also have to have the training and the buy-in from the people in the community, law enforcement, schools, families to really understand how they work and when they should be used.

  • John Yang:

    But, in this case, also, it seems like this was a someone who was intent on being deceptive, on figuring out how to get out of having said this thing in high school about murder/suicide, lying to — he acknowledges lying to his parents.

    I mean, is someone who's intent on deceiving just going to get around these laws?

  • Jillian Peterson:

    You know, it's hard to say.

    He can say that he was joking or kidding, but he still said it, right? And so we see that again and again, is that people will say, I'm thinking about this, and then, when confronted, they might say, oh, never mind, which is why we actually do need a lot more research, I think, into how to conduct these interviews, what information you should be looking at and pulling out, and how do we discern what's a joke and a hoax from something that's a realistic threat?

    Even if it's not a threat today, it could turn into something real a year from now. And I think we're still — the research in that area is still emerging.

  • John Yang:

    There was a Justice Department study that uses data that your program, The Violence Project, generated that found that, from 1966 to 2019, 77 percent of mass shooters got their weapons legally.

    What's going on here? Why is it so easy?

  • Jillian Peterson:

    Yes, it's a great question.

    So, we at The Violence Project, tracked every gun that was used in every mass shooting and going back to 1966, looking at how it was obtained, when it was obtained, how it was modified. And what was shocking is how many of these perpetrators were able to purchase guns legally even though they really shouldn't have been able to.

    So there was things like lying when doing a background check, or the background check not being performed, or crossing state lines, where the age limits are different. Or maybe their history of a felony or psychiatric hospitalization wasn't entered into the system correctly. So you can see just these system failures over and over again.

    A lot of them also purchase guns online or at gun shows or through private sales or take them from their parents, ways where — places that we don't regulate.

  • John Yang:

    I want you to just sort of expand on a point you made earlier.

    I mean, the red flag laws were intended to detect and spot mass shooters before they acted. But, clearly, in this case, it didn't work. What — so, what's the fix? How can we detect and deter mass shooters before they act?

  • Jillian Peterson:

    You know, it's a huge question.

    So we published this book in the fall called "The Violence Project," where we dove deep into all of the data. And we actually came out with 33 different potential solutions, based on the data that we had, none of them perfect on their own, but, sort of stacked together, you start to get somewhere.

    So, everything from kind of trauma screening in schools, to crisis intervention and threat assessment teams, to better relationships with mental health care providers, to implementing red flag laws and universal background checks.

    So I think there's a lot of things we can be doing, as individuals, as institutions, as policymakers. It's just there's not one single thing that's going to fix this. It's really complicated.

  • John Yang:

    The New York governor today asked the New York state attorney general to investigate the social media platforms that had a role in this. He says he got radicalized on a platform, a Web site that's notorious as a breeding ground for conspiracy theories.

    Talk a little bit about the role of the Internet and social media in this.

  • Jillian Peterson:

    Yes, we have seen mass shootings really increasing over the last 10, even five years.

    And we think that part of that escalation is the role of social media, that you have individuals who are lost, depressed, hopeless, angry, suicidal going online, and they're able to find these dark communities where a lot of their thinking is really validated. They're able to be radicalized really quickly.

    Before the Internet, it was really difficult to go and find all these people who were saying these horrific things. But, with the Internet, you can find them and be validated really easily.

    We also have cases of perpetrators even talking to other perpetrators inside of chat rooms before they go out and do this. And we also know that these shootings are meant to be watched and witnessed. They're a way to kind of try to make your grievance and your anger go viral. And so the Internet there again plays a huge role in being able to turn these perpetrators into the sort of notorious people that we all know.

  • John Yang:

    Jillian Peterson of The Violence Project and Hamline University, thank you very much.

  • Jillian Peterson:

    Thank you.

Listen to this Segment