WASHINGTON -- Could the new gun law passed in Congress have prevented this week's mass shooting at an Illinois July Fourth parade? Most likely not.
Experts and congressional aides who are familiar with the law believe it is unlikely that it would have prevented someone with the suspect's profile passing a background check to be able to purchase firearms. They say that there was an indirect way that the law could have prevented him from buying guns if certain dominoes had been in place.
Although it is a hypothetical exercise, the Highland Park massacre, which resulted in seven deaths and many more injuries, provides one of the first opportunities for researchers to determine whether the most important federal gun law of all time could have prevented deadly weapons from the 21-year old suspect. Or, if stricter laws would have been required, gun violence prevention advocates claim.
Although the suspect was able to temporarily confiscate knives after encounters with local police officers, he was not charged or convicted of any crime. Two congressional aides stated that he would most likely have passed an FBI background screening.
Experts say that gun buyers under 21 must go through a three-step check. This includes contacting the local police agencies in the area where the suspect resides and checking for any juvenile criminal or mental records. This would have been sufficient to alert police in Illinois that the suspect wanted to purchase a gun to allow them to use the state's red flag law to keep guns out of his hands.
Nick Suplina (the senior vice president of law & policy for Everytown for Gun Safety), stated that it was not clear if the ban would have prevented the purchase. "But it could have led to additional action from law enforcement -- at the very least, a flag that this young man who threatened to kill his family members and himself is buying a gun."
Highland Park police knew the suspect; officers visited his home twice in 2019
Authorities said that the first visit was made in April that year. It was after law enforcement officers investigated a report that he attempted suicide. A mental health professional was able to handle the incident.
Police visited the house again in September 2019 after a relative reported that the suspect threatened to kill his family members. Authorities said that 16 knives, a sword, and a knife were taken from the home, but the suspect was not arrested as family members refused to sign any complaints.
In December 2017, he applied for a gun licence. He was 19 years old at the time. His father sponsored his application. The suspect was cleared of all background checks. He was then able to buy five firearms in 2020/21, including an AR-15-style rifle, which police claim was used to shoot down dozens paradegoers and spectators marking Independence Day.
"Under the new law because he was younger than 21, local law enforcement would've been contacted as part the enhanced background checks. This is pertinent because he was known to local law enforcement because law enforcement visited his home on two occasions. Brian Lemek, former executive director at Brady PAC, said that one was for a suicide attempt.
"Those visits might have been sufficient to trigger" an extreme-risk protection order or red flag law order, allowing authorities confiscate his guns.
The sequence of events could also have been affected by other provisions of the federal gun laws, though they may not have directly. The funding grants that can help enforce red flag laws are the most important. However, the chief Democratic author stated that they must be more effectively implemented in order to make them work.
In 2019, Illinois passed a red flag law that allowed family members and law enforcement officers to petition courts for "firearm-restraining orders." These orders prevent anyone from possessing or buying firearms if they are a threat to themselves or others. Even though the suspect had threatened to harm others, an order was not sought in his case.
"Illinois has a red flag statute on its books, but it isn't used very often," Senator Chris Murphy, D.Conn., who was the author of the gun law, stated Tuesday evening on CNN. It's inefficient. A bill that passed Congress just a week and half ago allocates nearly $1 billion to states like Illinois to teach law enforcement and first responders how to use a red-flag law well.
"Would everyone have known how to use Illinois’ red flag law?" Murphy said. Murphy stated that there was sufficient information to make a court and law enforcement take away the guns of this young man. Murphy said that a well-run red flag statute might have worked here.
Robin Lloyd, managing director of Giffords' gun safety group, said that federal grants totaling hundreds of millions of dollars will be used to help states increase awareness and strengthen existing red flag laws.
Lloyd stated in an interview that a law such as the Illinois law is only as good and effective as how it's applied. "If law enforcement, family members, and other stakeholders aren't aware of that law, it's not going be used," Lloyd said in an interview.
The Illinois State Police data, which Gov. J.B. Pritzker's office stated that the only crime committed by the suspect was a violation of tobacco possession in January 2016. Police had not received any mental health reports involving him.
The governor's office stated that the September 2019 "clear, present danger report" was a response to threats made by him but that he had told police that he did not feel like harming others or himself. After he claimed that the knives were his, he returned them to his father.
Pritzker stated in a statement that "Unfortunately, each time a mass shooting happens it serves as a stark reminder of how our gun laws often fail to meet the rigorous standards that feel common sense to most Americans."
"I appeal to all Illinoisans to use the Illinois Firearm Restraining Order Act to alert authorities of dangerous persons with guns and learn about it." My administration will collaborate with the General Assembly in order to combat the gun lobby, and to strengthen gun control laws and red flag laws.
Pritzker also called for Congress to regulate "weapons that war and high-capacity magazines that are only used for mass murder." Pritzker stated that Illinois may have strict gun laws, but it is only as safe as the states with the weakest laws, many of which border Illinois.
Guns Down America's executive director, Igor Volsky said that it was "absolutely shocking" that gun buyers could still buy weapons similar to the one used in the Highland Park attack. He acknowledged, however that the federal law did not intend to ban such weapons.
Volsky stated that the law passed the Senate with the support of all 50 Democratic senators and 15 Republicans.