Florida gun, mental laws couldn’t have stopped massacre
Sunrise, Fla. – Florida’s gun and mental health laws likely could not have prevented school shooting suspect Nikolas Cruz from buying last year the semi-automatic rifle authorities say he used to kill 17 people even if they had applied to him, the state commission investigating the shooting learned Thursday.
Robin Sparkman, chief of the state’s Firearm Eligibility Bureau, told the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Commission that even if Cruz had been subjected to an involuntary, three-day mental health evaluation under a state law called the Baker Act, he still could have bought the AR-15 allegedly used in the Feb. 14 massacre. Under state law before the shooting, only if Cruz, 19, had been adjudicated mentally ill by a judge or convicted of a felony would he have been ineligible to buy a gun. Cruz was never committed under the Baker Act, convicted of a crime or adjudicated mentally ill.
“So many people think the Baker Act is a magic wand – that the Baker Act cures and fixes all. The Baker Act doesn’t,” said Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri, the commission’s chairman. “The Baker Act is a temporary custody status for assessment. Rarely does the Baker Act result in any treatment. People think that if Cruz had been Baker Acted that this wouldn’t have happened. That is flat-out erroneous. Whether he would have been Baker Acted or not is another one of those things that would have had little or no impact on what happened.”
Under the Baker Act, Florida can involuntarily commit a person for a mental health evaluation for up to 72 hours – about 192,000 such commitments were made last year, about one for every 100 Florida residents.
It can be implemented if a police officer, judge, doctor or mental health official believes the person is mentally ill and is a near-term danger to themselves or others. Many are released within hours and anyone detained under the act must be released within three days unless they volunteer for treatment or a judge agrees the person needs to be committed.
Being evaluated under the Baker Act or volunteering for commitment does not make a person ineligible to buy or own a gun. School and law enforcement officials considered detaining Cruz under the Baker Act in 2016, but did not.
Three weeks after the massacre, Florida changed its laws, implementing a system where police departments and sheriff’s offices can petition a judge to block a person with suspected mental illnesses from buying and owning weapons for up to a year and then apply for extensions. It also increased the age limit for buying rifles and shotguns to 21 under most circumstances, matching the law for handguns.
Earlier Thursday, Gualtieri defended Broward County sheriff’s Capt. Jan Jordan, who oversaw the initial response to the massacre and was criticized for not ordering deputies to immediately charge into the building and stop the gunman. He told the commission her decisions were hampered by the county’s radio system, which became overwhelmed as dozens of first responders began broadcasting on it. When that happens, it starts blocking new transmissions to prevent a complete crash.
Jordan was the regional commander overseeing Parkland, the city where the shooting took place. Some have criticized Jordan for not quickly taking charge and for ordering deputies to set up a perimeter instead of confronting the shooting suspect.
Gualtieri said Jordan “couldn’t communicate.” Instead, her radio was giving her a series of tones that he played for the commission and might as well have been “a brick.”
“If anyone is going to criticize anybody, whether it be Capt. Jordan or anybody else, we need to know what that person had available to them at the time and what they tried to do or didn’t try to do and how much knowledge they had,” he said. “If somebody needs to be hung out to dry then let’s hang them out to dry, but let’s make sure we are right before we do.”
A similar situation happened after a gunman killed five at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport in January 2017. The county is replacing its first-responder radio system, with it expected to be fully operational next year.
The commission, which includes law enforcement, educators, a legislator, parents of slain students and others, is in the middle of a three-day monthly meeting as it examines the massacre’s causes. It will issue a report by the end of the year and make recommendations to prevent future school shootings.
Cruz, a former Marjory Stoneman Douglas High student, is charged with 17 counts of first-degree murder. His attorneys have said he would plead guilty in exchange for a life sentence without parole. Prosecutors are seeking the death penalty.