The New York Times: Gov. Rick Scott of Florida said on Thursday that he would call on state lawmakers and law enforcement authorities to keep firearms away from the mentally ill.
“How do we make sure that individuals with mental illness do not touch a gun?” the Republican governor said at a news conference, taking an unusually strong stance on a gun control issue.
Scott Israel, the Broward County, Fla., sheriff, called on lawmakers in Washington and Tallahassee to expand police powers by allowing officers to detain people for a mental health evaluation on the basis of worrisome social media posts or “graphic threats.”
And President Trump urged people to report anyone whose behavior seemed disturbed, despite the fact that there is no law on the books in Florida that would let the authorities take people’s guns in that situation.
In the aftermath of the shootings at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., elected and law enforcement officials ramped up their demands for expanded authority over the mentally ill who pose a danger, although some of the officials never mentioned curbing access to guns. In doing so, they stepped into a long and complicated balancing act in the United States between public safety and the right to bear arms for people with mental health issues.
Others, including some gun control and mental health advocates, point to the increasing number of states that allow law enforcement officers or, in some cases, family members or others to petition a court to temporarily take guns from people who pose a danger to themselves or others.
The measures, known as “red flag laws” or extreme risk protection orders, have shown evidence of reducing suicides in Connecticut, where the first such law was passed in 1999, and in recent years have also been passed in California, Washington and Oregon. Eighteen states, including Florida, and the District of Columbia are considering such laws this year, according to a list compiled by Everytown for Gun Safety, a nonprofit advocacy group.
“To claim, ‘Oh, well, you should see the signs and tell law enforcement,’ to me is disingenuous unless there is something law enforcement can do,” said Avery Gardiner, the co-president of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence.
Red flag laws, she said, “provide a path to remove guns from somebody in a temporary crisis.” And, she said, even if a family decides not to seek a gun restraining order, the fact that the option exists can prompt frank conversations with struggling relatives.
Mr. Trump and Republican lawmakers have long tried to steer the national conversation after mass shootings to the mental health of people pulling the triggers, rather than the weapons they used. That effort is belied by the fact that mental illness is not the root of most cases of gun violence, though it does pose an increased risk for suicide.
As reactions poured in Thursday, Mr. Trump focused on the suspect’s mental health, and Attorney General Jeff Sessions said he wanted the Justice Department to study how mental illness and gun violence intersect. He said it would help law enforcement better understand how law enforcement can use existing laws to intervene before school shootings happen.
“It cannot be denied that something dangerous and unhealthy is happening in our country,” Mr. Sessions told a group of sheriffs in Washington. In “every one of these cases, we’ve had advance indications and perhaps we haven’t been effective enough in intervening.”
Secretary Alex M. Azar II of the Department of Health and Human Services began a multiagency news conference on the flu epidemic by addressing the Florida shootings. The administration would be “laser-focused on getting Americans with mental illness the help they need,” he said.
The suspect in the Florida shooting, Nikolas Cruz, 19, had been expelled from the high school, and many former classmates avoided him, convinced he was dangerous. He was also apparently showing signs of depression, having recently lost his mother.
In an analysis of some 350 mass killers going back a century, about 22 percent were found to likely have had psychosis; the rate in the general population is closer to 1 percent. A much smaller percentage had severe depression; so far there is no evidence Mr. Cruz had psychosis.
Federal law forbids people who have been involuntarily committed to a psychiatric hospital and people found to be a danger to themselves or others from having guns. But the federal government depends on states to report such cases so it can add them to a national background check system, and reporting varies widely.
Florida has entered 141,042 mental health records into the national background check system, according to the Brady Campaign. Wyoming, on the other hand, has entered four.
The number of mental health records in the system has grown rapidly, to 5.2 million in 2018 from 234,628 in 2005, the Brady Campaign said.
But after 20 children and six adults were killed at Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012, the Obama administration tried to add some people to the background check system, by requiring the Social Security Administration to submit records of some beneficiaries with severe mental illness.
Last year, Mr. Trump quietly revoked that rule, which was also opposed by the American Civil Liberties Union.
Some states have tried to create their own databases of people deemed too mentally unstable to carry firearms. New York, one of the most restrictive states in the country, had put 34,500 names on its list by 2014, a figure that raised concerns among some mental health advocates that too many people had been categorized as dangerous.
But that approach has largely fallen out of favor, with more states turning to red flag laws that focus not on a mental health diagnosis but rather on dangerous behavior.
They bloomed in several states after the Isla Vista shooting in 2014, in which a disturbed man killed six University of California, Santa Barbara students after his family had tried unsuccessfully to alert the authorities about his troubling behavior.
The laws typically allow the police or family members to petition a court for a temporary gun restraining order that might last a few weeks. After a hearing in which the person can respond to evidence, a judge can issue a final order that typically lasts up to a year and can be renewed. The restraining orders usually allow the police to seize people’s guns and restrict them from buying new ones.
In Connecticut, where 762 gun seizure cases were carried out from 1999 to June 2013, a study by researchers at Duke University estimated that the law had averted approximately one suicide for every 10 to 11 gun seizure cases.
“We see these laws as a way for law enforcement and families to intervene before these mass tragedies occur,” said Elizabeth Avore, the legal and policy director at Everytown for Gun Safety. “Law enforcement or family are usually the first to see this threat.”
In California, efforts to expand the list of those who could petition for restraining orders to include co-workers and employers drew opposition not only from pro-gun groups like the National Rifle Association but also from the A.C.L.U.
Florida is one of the less restrictive states when it comes to mental illness and guns. The police can confine people considered a danger to themselves or others for up to 72 hours as part of an involuntary psychiatric evaluation. And the police are allowed to take their guns when they are detained. But a 2009 advisory opinion by the state’s attorney general said that without an arrest or criminal charge, the police could not hold onto their weapons.
Mental health experts said the proposals raised by the sheriff and Mr. Scott provoked concerns.
“To say no one with mental illness should have a gun — how do you accomplish that?” said Ronald Honberg, senior policy adviser for the National Alliance on Mental Illness. “Does that mean anybody that goes to a therapist for depression or anxiety should be reported and put in a database and prohibited from purchasing a firearm? That would impact a fair number of police officers.”