DEEP DIVE: “I want to shoot him in the face” (and keep my guns)
Are red flag laws the answer to our nation’s gun problem? Or are they wildly unconstitutional?
This week a bipartisan group of senators announced that, after decades of inaction, they have reached a tentative agreement to try to reduce the gun violence plaguing our country. The plan relies heavily on providing federal incentives for states to pass so-called “red flag” laws, which allow the government to temporarily confiscate guns from people who show signs of mental instability. (In other words, people who might commit a violent crime, even if they haven’t yet done anything illegal.)
It’s not surprising red flag laws are part of the expected legislation. Amid all the paralysis in Washington — amid all the vitriol and mistrust — red flag laws have long shown the most potential for bipartisan agreement. The one thing most liberals and conservatives agree on — to an unbelievable, basically unheard of extent — is that mentally unbalanced people shouldn’t have guns. (According to a 2021 Pew Research Center poll, 85% of Republicans and 90% of Democrats favor preventing the mentally ill from purchasing guns.)
There are still plenty of hurdles to pass before the federal government blesses1 red flag laws. Although moderate Republicans are on board, the more right-wing folks have a lot of objections, which implicate multiple amendments to the U.S. Constitution, not the least of which is the First Amendment’s freedom of speech. We’ll get to all that. But first, let’s look at one example of red flag laws in action to show how they might stop gun violence before it begins.
Preventing the Next Nikolas Cruz
In the years before Nikolas Cruz murdered 17 people at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida, the 19-year-old had had dozens of run-ins with the police. From the time he was a boy, his mother and others would call 911, warning about his collection of knives and guns, his violent temper, his anger issues. There were so many signs that something was coming, some of them explicit — like when he wrote in a YouTube comment section, “Im [sic] going to be a professional school shooter.”
None of the warnings did a thing to prevent the 2018 school shooting in Parkland, one of the worst massacres in U.S. history. The Republican-controlled Florida legislature was determined not to overlook such blatant red flags again. In the wake of the shooting, the state passed a law authorizing RPOs, which allowed police to temporarily confiscate guns from the mentally imbalanced.
One of the first Floridians to become the target of that law — known colloquially as a “red flag law” — was Chris Velasquez, a student at the University of Central Florida. Chris had praised the Parkland and Las Vegas shooters in Reddit posts. He called them “heroes,” and said of other posters, “You guys are too weak to be a school shooter” — the implication being that he, himself, was not too weak. Several Redditors contacted the police, and Velasquez soon found himself being interrogated by a police officer.
What follows is a master class in how to earn the trust of a suspect, how to get them to open up to you, and how to encourage them to reveal secrets they might not even be aware of themselves.