A major feature of living in a country where young men shoot their classmates about every 60 hours or so, and where a powerful political lobby invests heavily in keeping guns in constituents’ hands, is that there is always ample opportunity to consider what should have been done in the hours after a tragedy. We knew last time, and we know now, that we need some sort of gun control.
The day after Nikolas Cruz killed 17 of his classmates in Florida with an AR-15, we’re talking about banning assault weapons (a measure introduced and promptly killed in the Florida House last spring), increasing state funding for the treatment of depression (unlikely, given what’s happening to our healthcare), bringing back the Obama-era rules that made it difficult for people with serious mental illnesses to buy weapons.
But let’s say, in a country so opposed to the idea that a well-meaning citizen might want an assault weapon for sport and be unable to use it—To mow cans off of fence-posts? To look cool on YouTube?—we could come up with the most targeted way to address our very specific problem.
Maybe it would be legislation that would prevent a person who shows a “substantial likelihood” of harming themselves or others from buying a gun, on a temporary basis. In some states like California, those protections actually exist, in a little-known legal provision called a Gun Violence Restraining Order (GVRO) that was written expressly to stop people exactly like Cruz.
California’s GVRO was the first in the county to be made law; similar provisions have been introduced in at least 11 other states. Sometimes referred to as a “firearms restraining order,” the legislation is intended to allow police, and in some cases families and schools, to remove a gun from a person they believe is in danger of using it on themselves and others. Like other kinds of restraining orders, these court orders are petitioned in front of a judge. In California, the standard length of a GVRO is 21 days; it can be extended in a subsequent hearing for up to one year.
In a recent study out of The John Hopkins School for Public Health, researchers analyzed a number of mass shootings and found similar profiles: Families had known something was wrong, often trying to take guns away from their troubled kids, or begged them to seek mental health treatment. Cops had been called but had no legal basis for intervention. “GVRO allow family members and intimate partners who identify a pattern of dangerous behavior to intervene in advance of something bad happening,” the study’s lead author, Shannon Frattaroli, said at the time.
Tellingly, California’s Gun Violence Restraining Order was introduced and pushed through the legislature in direct response to Elliot Rodgers, a 22-year-old who killed three people in his apartment and two women outside a sorority in 2014. Rodgers, before he opened fire, had been targeted by a mental health agency. His parents, unable to handle his various acute crisis, had on at least one occasion called the cops. In many states, as state politicians noted in a statement at the time, family may call police to intervene, but:
If no crime has been committed, or the individual does not meet the criteria for an involuntary civil commitment to mental health treatment, there is essentially nothing that can be done to prevent that individual from purchasing firearms or to temporarily remove firearms from their possession during the crisis.
By now, much has been made of Nikolas Cruz’s “warning signs”: the animal torture on his Instagram feed, his erratic and violent behavior. His schoolmates say he “always had guns on him.” His mother, according to people interviewed by the New York Times, “would resort to calling the police to have them come to their home and try to talk some sense into him.” One would imagine she felt the same sense of helplessness as did Rodgers’ family. When Trump says Americans “must always report such instances to authorities,” he’s clearly oblivious to the fact that they do—there are just so few structures in place to help them.
If we can’t find a way to control guns, the very least we could do is make sure they don’t end up in the hands of boys like Rodgers and Cruz—angry boys who fit the by now well-documented profile perfectly. No one who knew Cruz seemed particularly surprised that he was the one to violently assault his classmates. Without even the most narrow of laws to prevent mass shootings, how can we be surprised he ended up with an AR-15?