April 19, 2021

"Any law is only as good as the people that are enforcing it. Does it make sense we took away the gun because he’s too dangerous to have one, but we didn’t take the step to prevent him from going out and buying one the next day?"

Said Brad Banks, a former prosecutor in Marion County (location of Indianapolis), quoted in "In Indianapolis Shooting, a Red Flag That Never Flew/Red flag laws are supposed to keep guns away from people who should not have them. That did not happen with the gunman who killed eight people in Indianapolis." 

The headline is obfuscatory. Why can't they say it straight, in a way that challenges the people who cry out for more laws? The Indianapolis Shooter Was Legally Barred From Purchasing a Gun, But the Seller Sold One to Him Anyway. 

But is my proposed clear headline correct? I had to comb through the article trying to find the answer. It wasn't easy!

In March 2020, Mr. Hole’s mother approached officers at a Police Department roll call and told them she believed that her son was having suicidal thoughts and might even try to commit “suicide by cop,” the chief of the Indianapolis Metropolitan Police, Randal Taylor, said on Sunday....

When the police arrived at the house, Mr. Hole’s mother “asked him to come down,” the chief said. “When he does, they’d already felt they had enough information to do the needed detention.” Mr. Hole, who was 18 at the time, was taken to a hospital on a “mental health temporary hold,” according to Paul Keenan, the special agent in charge of the F.B.I.’s Indianapolis office.

Having been told about a shotgun that Mr. Hole had recently purchased, an officer at the house went upstairs to take it, the chief said, and saw on the young man’s computer “some stuff about some white supremacy ideations and those kind of things.”

Federal investigators would interview Mr. Hole about those discoveries the next month, though they would conclude that he did not harbor an ideology of “racially motivated violent extremism.”...

I'm trying to cut the text down as much as possible as I try to focus on why the gun law didn't work in this case, but I'm leaving in the white supremacy material because it's such a big topic, and it feels as thought the reader is getting detoured into the subject of controlling not guns but hateful thoughts. But I'm more than halfway into the article, and I still don't know why the existing gun law did not work.

The seizure of weapons under red flag laws is often temporary. In Indiana, once a weapon is taken by the police, prosecutors have 14 days to justify the seizure to a judge. If such a determination is not made, the firearms are immediately returned.

But the shotgun seized from Hole was never returned, so this does not yet address the lapse that led to Hole's having a gun.

But if the judge decides the person in question is so unstable that he or she should not be permitted to have guns, the police hold onto the seized weapons, and the person is barred from possessing any guns for at least six months. The permanent seizure of Mr. Hole’s shotgun would therefore suggest that prosecutors had sought and obtained a red flag determination. But this apparently did not happen....

So where was the lapse?

Ryan Mears, the Marion County prosecutor, said in an interview at a vigil on Saturday that he did not know what had happened in this case. But he suggested, posing a hypothetical, that the authorities might have taken the gun in response to pleas from concerned family members, and considered the crisis resolved. “What could have occurred,” Mr. Mears said, “is the point was: ‘Let’s get the gun out of there, make sure the gun is not returned,’ if that was the agreement that was made. And I’m not saying that it is the case. But there’s no reason to go in front of the judge at that point in time, because the point is we want to take the weapon away.”

What "point in time" is he talking about? Why isn't Mears informed about this particular case? Something obviously went wrong. The people had their important gun control law. Hole's mother did what she could, and so did the police. Why is Mears talking about "mak[ing] sure the gun is not returned" when the question here is why was this dangerous young man allowed to buy a gun when, under the red flag law, he should have been barred from purchasing a gun?

[W]ithout a red flag restriction, Mr. Hole would go on to buy two powerful firearms within the next six or seven months. For those who have studied the evolution of red flag laws, Mr. Hole may turn out to be a tragic example of their shortcomings.

The NYT never tells us that the Indiana statute has a provision not only for seizing guns but for barring the future purchase of guns! It speaks of the "evolution of red flag laws" and "their shortcomings" as if the problem is in the text of the law. But the problem was in using the provisions of the law! Here's how the article ends: 

In practice, experts say containing more chronic threats like Mr. Hole might be beyond the laws’ reaches, in their current forms. “Maybe it prevented something for a year, or six months,” [said Aaron J. Kivisto, a psychology professor at the University of Indianapolis]. “And then it wasn’t enough.”

But what wasn't enough? The text of the law or the actions of those with the responsibility to enforce it? Instead of mushing up this article with the "maybe" musings of the psychology professor, the NYT should shine a harsh light on the prosecutors. Why did these killings happen? The young man was apparently quite obviously mentally ill and dangerous, and his poor mother did what she could. So did the police, it seems. The legislation was on the books. 

My proposed clear headline is wrong, I believe. I think that there was some failure, the fault of the prosecution or the court, that caused there not to be a bar on Hole's purchasing of a gun. I don't think the seller was at fault. Correct  me if I'm wrong. 

Must I answer that question I asked above: "Why can't [the NYT] say it straight, in a way that challenges the people who cry out for more laws?" The answer seems obvious: The NYT prefers to heat up the demand for more gun laws. 

FROM THE EMAIL: Ozymandias writes:

Chief Taylor is first reported to be baffled by the absence of a judicial detention order: 

The permanent seizure of Mr. Hole’s shotgun would therefore suggest that prosecutors had sought and obtained a red flag determination. But this apparently did not happen. “For whatever reason,” Chief Taylor said, “that never made it to the court.” 

But later in the piece, there’s this: 

Still, this would not explain how the authorities legally held on to the shotgun after the 14 days. But the chief said Mr. Hole called at one point and said that “he didn’t want the weapons back.” 

“It’s not uncommon,” the chief said. “People realize, you know, ‘Maybe I shouldn’t have it.’  

[Emphasis added.] 

It seems no judicial order was sought because Hole agreed to the seizure after the gun was taken, and perhaps before the 14-day deadline for a red-flag order had expired. There was no order on record, Hole was apparently free to buy more guns. 

Such flaccid, meandering writing. Looks like the Times needed another article on the shooting, so they published one before they had figured out a clear story. Quote in the fifth paragraph even lacks closing parentheses.

Yes, that is incredibly garbled. I could be more compassionate toward the NYT. My assumption was they used a template: We need more gun legislation. Your idea is: They rushed to publish a story that they didn't even understand. Either way, it's defective journalism.

AND: Amadeus 48 writes:

This problem (possession of guns by deranged persons) is perhaps one of these things in life to which there is no solution. But the bright and ambitious people who populate our various governments never want to have THAT discussion. In a country where there are already hundreds of millions of guns, we are never really going to be able to corral even a significant fraction of them. Plus, citizens do have the right to defend themselves. We may have to live with this problem, as we have done. And, as this article hints, we don’t enforce the gun laws we have.

When we were in the thrall of the last mayoral election in Chicago, the leading candidates all came serially to a forum of which I am a member. As we all know, the south and west sides of the city have become a shooting range. I asked each candidate what they proposed to do about the surging violence. Each of them said, “Pass tighter gun laws.” When I pointed out that the prosecutors and courts weren’t enforcing the gun laws we have, which are quite strict, they blamed Indiana and Wisconsin in a non-sequitur. Each of them did this, without knowing what the others said. My conclusion was that they didn’t know what to do, so they default to “pass more gun laws” and attempt to change the subject.

ALSO: Another reader emails: "Ryan Mears is a Democrat. There will be no examination of the failures of his office. Reading the article triggered my 'name that party' sense."

UPDATE: The April 22, 2021 episode of the NYT "Daily" podcast examines why the prosecutors did not go through the procedure that might have led to a ban on Hole's buying guns. They said they thought the risk that they'd fail to prove Hole's dangerousness outweighed the chance that they'd be able to ban his future buying of a gun. If prosecutors brought the proceeding, it could have ended up returning the seized gun that Hole was not trying to get back. Police did not witness Hole behaving dangerously, so there was a lack of evidence, and they faced a short time window under the existing law.