Red flag laws questioned after revelations about Highland Park gunman

Bail was denied Wednesday for the gunman who confessed to the July 4 massacre in Highland Park, Illinois that left seven people dead. Authorities also revealed new information about the gunman, raising questions about how he was able to get guns in the first place. Jeffrey Swanson, professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Duke University School of Medicine, joins Amna Nawaz to discuss.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    An Illinois state judge denied bail today for the gunman who police say confessed to the July 4 massacre in Highland Park that left seven people dead.

    Authorities revealed that the gunman considered starting another shooting spree in Madison, Wisconsin, where he drove while he was avoiding police in Illinois. And there were more questions about how he was able to get his guns in the first place.

    Amna Nawaz has the latest.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Today, in a closed hearing, the first court appearance for the 21-year-old alleged gunman behind Monday's attack, charged with killing seven people and injuring more than three dozen at a July 4 parade in Highland Park, Illinois.

  • Eric Rinehart, Lake County, Illinois, State’s Attorney:

    The judge ruled that Robert Crimo III would be held without bond and that there was probable cause to hold him at this time for seven counts of first-degree murder.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Deputy Chief Christopher Covelli at the Lake County Sheriff's Office shared new details of Crimo's plans as he fled to Wisconsin after the shooting.

  • Chris Covelli, Lake County, Illinois, Sheriff’s Office:

    However, he did see a celebration that was occurring in Madison. And he seriously contemplated using the firearm he had in his vehicle to commit another shooting.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Covelli said the gunman had about 60 rounds left at that point, but hadn't planned enough to carry out a second attack.

    The Highland Park attack, however, had been planned for several weeks. He legally purchased five guns, including the Smith & Wesson semiautomatic rifle used in the shooting, which was bought in Illinois in the last year, that despite two encounters with police in 2019, one after he attempted suicide, the second after he threatened to kill family, leading officers to confiscate 16 knives, a dagger and sword from the home.

    There were no charges or arrests in either case. Authorities recovered 83 spent bullet shells from the rooftop where Crimo took aim at parade-goers. Investigators are still reviewing the gunman's social media posts and conducting interviews to determine a motive.

    Meanwhile, another American community grieves. Authorities today identified the seventh victim as Eduardo Uvaldo, a 69-year-old grandfather. And Highland Park's loss ripples far beyond this neighborhood. Among yesterday's visitors, Vice President Kamala Harris meeting with first responders and local leaders at the parade site. Officials say nine people ranging from ages 14 to 70 are still hospitalized as of yesterday.

    Let's focus now on some of the questions being raised about how the gunman was able to obtain weapons after those 2019 incidents and what red flag laws can and cannot do.

    Jeffrey Swanson studies these issues. He's a professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Duke University who looks closely at shootings.

    Professor Swanson, welcome back to the "NewsHour." Thank you for joining us.

    I want to ask you about these details we're learning. Here, you have a young man who was twice flagged to authorities. He was still able to get a firearm owners I.D. card. He passed background checks. He legally bought his weapons.

    Illinois has a red flag law on the books. Why didn't it work?

  • Dr. Jeffrey Swanson, Duke University:

    Well, it is concerning.

    Warning signs always look more obvious and worse when we view them through this remarkable device called a retrospective scope. When we're looking forward, there are a lot of people who have contacts with law enforcement, a lot of people who look like they should — that they pose a risk of harm to self or others.

    So, yes, and if people see something like this, if people — if somebody around you is of concern, you should take action in calling the police. In this, it's what they what they did. The question is, what can the police actually do? The red flag law is designed to give police officers authority to remove firearms.

    It's a civil restraining order. It's someone who poses a risk. Usually, it's an imminent risk of harm to self or others. They can remove those guns with the court order and it's time-limited.

    But, otherwise, there's not much they could do. If the person poses a risk in a mental health crisis, police officers have the authority to take that person in, detain them for usually about 72 hours for an evaluation. And if they meet the criteria that they're dangerous and mentally ill, they can be admitted involuntarily to a hospital to mitigate that risk.

    And that would have conferred a gun-disqualifying record. The red flag law can work. But if people don't know about it, don't know how to use it, if there's no protocol in place, it's not routine, it's not scaled up to where officers or others know to use it, it's not going to do much good anyway.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Well, as you say, of course, things are much clearer in hindsight.

    But there are some details I want to ask you about, because from a law enforcement perspective now, we now know that they went to the home twice. They took away knives, a dagger and a sword after the family said that this young man threatened to kill everyone there. They were told he was getting mental health support.

    But then they say the family didn't want to move forward with a complaint. They didn't have any other information threats. And even though local police flagged state police, that's basically it. That's all they can do. So is the bar for what law enforcement can do at the right place?

  • Dr. Jeffrey Swanson:

    I don't want to second-guess what the police did in this case.

    It could well be that they should have done more, they should have done something differently. It is — it's a real challenge in our country when firearms are so prevalent. What we need is an ensemble of laws. The red flag law is a good tool. It's kind of like a Swiss army knife, or it's a nimble tool, because we don't have to decide why somebody's dangerous at the time.

    But they have to be dangerous, pose a risk during a particular time frame. Red flag laws would work better if we had universal background checks, if we did something about the illegal gun market in this country and the fact that young people and — or anybody, for that matter, can buy a weapon of war that is designed to kill multiple people in a very short period of time with minimal physical effort.

    So this is a real puzzle. Red flag laws, I still maintain, are a very important tool, if people know about them and if they are widely used. We have evidence from Connecticut and Indiana, the first two states that enacted similar laws, that, for every 10 to 20 of these legal actions, one life is saved by averting a suicide. That's what many of them are used for.

    And we have emerging evidence to show that, in many cases, in California and in other states, a significant proportion of these are used when there is a threat of a mass shooting. We don't know in every case that it would have happened without this, but we do know that if these are used in a timely way, it's going to remove a key element in one of these horrible incidents.

    Other countries have troubled young men who are inclined to hurt people or who are saying scary things on social media. They don't have this problem that we have, where there is this very deviant cultural script that's almost uniquely American that people follow. But a key element in that is this access to very lethal weapons.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    That is Professor Jeffrey Swanson of Duke University joining us tonight.

    Professor Swanson, thank you for joining us again.

  • Dr. Jeffrey Swanson:

    Thank you for having me.

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