Earlier this year, a student entered a high school in New Mexico with the intent to shoot his fellow students. Fortunately, no one was injured, and the individual was subsequently charged with three counts of attempt to commit murder in the first degree and unlawful possession of a handgun by a person under the age of 19, among other charges.
But the perpetrator was not the only individual charged in the active assailant attack. In an unexpected turn of events – particularly in a state with minimal laws regarding gun ownership and use – the parents were also charged for contributing to the delinquency of a minor. According to a criminal complaint, their failure to keep their guns away from their son after receiving warnings from authorities and others of his desire to commit an act of violence made them legally liable.
Can ‘Negligent Storage Laws’ Impact Targeted Violence Prevention?
This concept is not novel — 16 states have “negligent storage” laws that, in one way or another, seek to prevent parents from leaving their firearms accessible to minors. While these laws vary in scope and requirements, they prevent a common quandary: how to keep firearms away from young individuals who could harm themselves or others. Today, Massachusetts is the only state that requires guns to be locked up consistently, whether or not minor reside in the home.
These existing laws and the recent case in New Mexico are of particular interest to threat professionals, as firearm access, ownership and general interest are always considered when determining whether an individual could be on a path to violence. Association with guns, in and of itself, is far from a requisite for violence committed against others, but when paired with other alarming factors, can provide life-saving context for those seeking to prevent an attack.
Threat professionals, however, can rarely leverage firearm possession to keep an individual from committing an act of violence, such as through an arrest or commitment.
Threat Professionals Have to Navigate a Complex Legal Landscape
As threat professionals, we have to consider all risks related to a potentially violent subject. But early in the risk assessment process, there often is not a justification for intervention by law enforcement or involuntary commitment to a mental health facility. In 2019, the New Mexico legislature passed stricter firearm laws, such as requiring background checks for all gun purchases. However, exceptions to the regulation further complicate the issue, like sales or transfers between family members or firearm use under the supervision of a family member or guardian. Given these factors, an arrest of the student, such as in the case described above, would have been unlawful if he had, for example, just been observed with a firearm in one of these spaces or had been seen posting images or references to them on social media platforms.
Some may wonder why the individual could still be allowed access to firearms if he had been reported to a law enforcement agency and undergone a mental evaluation, after which he was found “incompetent.” One text message reported to the police – and later described to his parents – read: “Ever since my dad got a gun from his friend something tells me I should shoot up my school and I don’t want to but I keep fighting it.” He was also reportedly sending “scary” messages to his ex-girlfriend following their breakup.
However, these elements do not justify an arrest, as the perpetrator had not broken any laws. Under federal law, an individual “adjudicated as a mental defective or has been committed to any mental institution” or who has “a court order that restrains such person from harassing, stalking, or threatening an intimate partner of such person or child of such intimate partner” cannot possess a gun. The active assailant in this case, while demonstrating troubling behavior regarding both of these topics, did not meet these requirements for arrest.
Prevention, Not Arrest
As you can see, threat professionals have a complex web of legalities that they must understand to know what can or cannot be leveraged in a threat case. Often even well-trained threat assessment teams need the help of a professional behavioral threat assessor to understand these nuances and navigate through various options, scenarios and decisions – many of which imply various risks and tradeoffs – in order to prevent a tragic incident. Threat assessment professionals do and should take these laws very seriously. As I’ve described before, this process is about prevention, not arrest.
But, in the pursuit of prevention, cases like that in New Mexico can serve as one tactic or resource in the threat professionals’ tool kit. When faced with legal liability, parents and guardians who may recognize some of these behaviors in minors in their own homes may be more apt to assist a professional in stopping their family member’s behavior from escalating. Threat professionals cannot walk into your home and unlawfully arrest an individual – but some parents may recognize the importance of the legal precedent and keep their firearms away from children in their charge. Otherwise, they may themselves become liable.