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Mass shootings: How often were background checks, assault weapons and red flags a factor?

Guns seized during a May 8, 2019 raid by ATF agents and LAPD on a home in the Holmby Hills (LAPD/TNS)

In the wake of three deadly shootings in Gilroy, Dayton, Ohio, and El Paso, Texas, Congress is being pressured to consider a trio of gun laws — already used in California and other states — designed to keep weapons out of the hands of potential killers.

But would universal background checks, red flag laws and a ban of assault weapons reduce the bloodshed? This news organization looked at three years worth of recent active shooter incidents from 2016 through 2018 compiled by the FBI to see how often they involved background check loopholes, disturbing “red flag” signals from the shooter beforehand, and military-style assault weapons.

In more than two-thirds of the 75 cases reviewed, the shooters telegraphed their troubled state on social media, in remarks or messages to friends or family or with signs of mental illness or distress.

That raises the potential for them to have been disarmed beforehand through red flag laws like those in California and 16 other states. A recent study found 21 cases in which California’s red flag law appears to have headed off threatened mass shootings since it was enacted in 2016. Last week, a Long Beach hotel worker was arrested after a co-worker told police he threatened to shoot up the place, and a teenage girl in Orlando was arrested after her threats to shoot people at her sister’s school were reported.

In nearly a third of the cases, military-style assault weapons banned in California and six other states were used, though the shooters often had other types of guns too. Most used ordinary pistols, shotguns and rifles.

The review found that guns were obtained in a variety of ways. Most of the shooters either legally bought weapons and passed background checks or used a gun that was stolen or belonged to a relative or friend.

Gun control advocates argue that current laws are too easy for killers to exploit.

“In short we need better laws and better education,” said Stanford University law professor and gun policy expert John Donohue III.

Gun rights advocates, however, counter that the benefits of universal background checks, red flag laws and assault weapon bans are too limited to justify infringing on law-abiding citizens’ constitutional right to keep and bear arms.

“We know gun control laws don’t work and California is Exhibit A,” said Amy Hunter, a spokeswoman for the National Rifle Association. “Gun control laws do nothing to keep guns out of the hands of criminals. These laws only make it harder for law-abiding citizens to protect themselves.”

Background checks

Federal law has required background checks on retail gun purchases since 1994, but it doesn’t apply to unlicensed sellers online or at gun shows or other private sales. California is among states that require all gun transfers to go through a federally licensed dealer who provides a background check before the person has access to the weapon.

That didn’t matter in some California mass shootings in recent years. The woman who opened fire at the YouTube headquarters in San Bruno in April 2018 and the former Marine who shot up the Borderline Bar and Grill in Thousand Oaks in November 2018 legally bought their handguns.

The deranged man who went on a Tehama County shooting spree in November 2017 was prohibited from having firearms but used borrowed and homemade guns, and a disgruntled employee used a stolen gun to shoot up a UPS customer center in San Francisco in June 2017.

There were cases in which background checks should have blocked a purchase but failed to do so. The man who killed 26 people at a Sutherland Springs, Texas, church in November 2017 had a domestic violence conviction while serving in the Air Force, but it wasn’t entered into the national database used for background checks.

One of the mass shooters who killed five police officers at the end of a November 2016 protest in Dallas, Texas, bought an assault-type weapon from a private seller arranged through Facebook, picking it up in a Target store parking lot without a background check. But the gunman, an Army veteran of the Afghanistan war and reservist, also had two handguns, and it’s unclear a background check would have blocked him from buying a firearm.

Hunter said background checks don’t stop most crimes, noting a 2013 Bureau of Justice Statistics survey of prison inmates who had guns when they committed their crimes. The survey reported that more than three out of four inmates said they got their gun illegally or through family or friends rather than a retailer. But she added that the NRA has worked to improve the federal database to ensure it includes all legitimate records that would prohibit gun ownership through a background check.

Donohue called universal background checks “a no-brainer,” but conceded “we do need more work to really get the full benefit.”

Assault weapons

Federal law authored by Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-California, outlawed military-style semiautomatic rifles and pistols with high-capacity ammunition magazines from 1994 to 2004. Congress allowed the law to expire after a study found inconclusive evidence of its effectiveness. California has had a similar law since 1989, one the Gilroy shooter last month evaded by moving to Nevada, where those purchases are legal.

While such guns were used in a minority of the active shooter incidents from 2016 through 2018, they were involved in the deadliest — the October 2017 shooting at a country music concert in Las Vegas, and the June 2016 shooting at an Orlando nightclub. Others included Sutherland Springs and the February 2018 Parkland, Florida, high school shooting.

Hunter pointed to a 2004 report funded by the Justice Department and a 2018 Rand Corp. analysis and argued they found “no compelling evidence that bans made any difference in reducing violent crime.”

Gun ban supporters argue other research shows they are effective, like a 2014 studyindicating both state and federal assault weapons bans have statistically significant and negative effects on mass shooting fatalities. A 2010 survey found more than a third of surveyed police departments reported a rise in criminals using assault weapons since the federal ban expired.

David Chipman, a senior policy adviser at gun control group Giffords and former Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives agent, said the killing efficiency of military-style guns with high capacity magazines makes them inappropriate for civilian use.

“If we’re going to address gun violence, no way to address this without addressing guns,” Chipman said. “The real driver of this is the lethality of the weaponry readily available to Americans.”

Red flags

Federal law bars people from having guns if they have been declared mentally ill or convicted of felonies, domestic violence or are subject to domestic violence restraining orders. “Red flag” laws in California and other states go further, allowing authorities to temporarily take guns from people reported to be an extreme risk of using the weapons to hurt themselves or others, even if they have no record of violence or mental illness. Many have urged Congress to adopt similar legislation nationwide.

Of the active shooter cases analyzed, most of the killers signaled their desire to hurt themselves and others beforehand, though those who knew them often didn’t think they would carry out killing sprees. In the Parkland shooting, school officials raised concerns about the 19-year-old gunman but authorities didn’t act on them.

At least three cases involved shooters said to have attempted suicide — a teen who shot up his Wisconsin high school in April 2016, and in September that year, a man who went on a Philadelphia shooting spree and another who killed five a week later at the Cascade Mall in Washington state.

Several involved threats of workplace violence by disgruntled or former employees, something a California bill seeks to change by adding coworkers and school employees to the list of people in the state who can seek gun violence restraining orders. Those included an October 2017 shooting at Advanced Granite Solutions in Maryland, the Bronx-Lebanon Hospital Center shooting in June 2017 and the June 2017 shooting at Fiamma Inc. in Orlando, Florida.

Hunter said that red flag laws “at a minimum must include strong due process protections, require treatment, and include penalties against those who make frivolous claims.” California and other states make it a crime to seek a gun violence restraining order under false pretenses.

Ohio doesn’t have a red flag law. But Donohue said there were plenty of red flags around the Dayton gunman who killed nine before police killed him — including being suspended from school for having a “hit list” of fellow students — that should have provided a means to disarm him.

“We really need to have a monitoring system in place that keeps this (type of) person away from guns,” he said.


© 2019 the San Jose Mercury News