After a shooting at a Florida high school left 17 people dead on Valentine's Day, many bemoaned the fact little had been done to stop the alleged shooter from committing the massacre.
There were warning signs about 19-year-old Nikolas Cruz, who is charged with 17 counts of premeditated murder. News reports say he made threats, made posts about guns and killing animals on social media and killed squirrels with a pellet gun.
Broward County Sheriff Scott Israel said deputies responded to Cruz's home more than 20 times, beginning in 2008. None of the calls for service was for an arrestable offense, he said.
Law enforcement officials and legal experts wonder whether things might have been different if the warnings had appeared in Indiana, one of five states with a “red flag” law that allows police to take guns from dangerous people. The law – which allows police to seize weapons without a warrant – has prevented potential tragedies, and saved countless lives since it took effect in 2005, local and state officials say.
“It's extremely valuable,” said Lt. Tony Maze, who oversees the Fort Wayne Police Department's Crisis Intervention Team. “It takes immediate access to a firearm out of the hands of someone who definitely should not have access to a firearm.”
David Powell, executive director of the Indiana Prosecuting Attorneys Council, said the Indiana law would have kept the AR-15-style rifle Cruz allegedly used out of the shooter's hands.
“I think, absolutely,” he said. “Clearly, you would have had evidence to do that.”
The law was enacted after Indianapolis police Officer Jake Laird was shot and killed in August 2004 by a man with schizophrenia. Kenneth C. Anderson, 33, had guns seized earlier in the year, following “an emergency detention” in a hospital for mental health problems, a statement from state Attorney General Curtis Hill said.
When he was released, Anderson sought the return of his weapons. Nothing in Indiana law at the time allowed authorities to keep them.
Anderson, who was shot and killed by police, was not taking prescribed medication for his illness when he killed Laird and injured four other officers.
Under the law, firearms can be seized if a person “presents an imminent risk” to others or themselves. A section of the law allows seizure of guns if someone might injure themselves or others in the future in specific situations – including if the person has a mental illness for which they are not taking medication.
Perhaps relevant to the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting in Parkland, Florida, police under the law can take weapons if there is documented evidence “that would give rise to a reasonable belief that the individual has a propensity for violent or emotionally unstable conduct.”
“The statute's pretty broad,” Allen Superior Court Judge Fran Gull said.
Gull has presided over dozens of cases where people deemed dangerous under the law have had their guns taken away. The first cases were filed in Allen County about 2016, after Gull was contacted by police asking about the law.
About 65 cases have been handled locally since then. At least three have been filed since November, court records show. Most of the requests for seizure were filed by Fort Wayne police.
“We're pretty fortunate that we've got a pretty progressive police department that's utilizing this statute to potentially prevent something catastrophic,” Gull said. “We don't want something like that happening here. This is truly an intervention tool.”
Officers who take guns under the law must submit paperwork outlining their reasons for doing so with a judge. The judge decides whether police can hold the weapons, providing due process.
Periodic hearings are then scheduled, and the person can ask for the guns to be returned.
Initial documents filed by police are sealed, so it's difficult to determine many of the situations in which Allen County residents have had their guns seized. Gull, police and prosecutors say most cases involve people in danger of harming themselves who have access to a gun.
Other local cases have involved people being battered and some who have barricaded themselves inside buildings. Other cases include one spouse in an estranged couple traveling to the other's place of employment with the intention of harming them.
A redacted statement from police provided to The Journal Gazette outlines a situation in January where family members warned officers of an intoxicated man who was suicidal and had threatened his wife.
The man – at one point drunk in his truck, with a shotgun pointed at his head – told the woman “the only way she was leave (sic) the house tonight was in a body bag,” the report says.
Police later found the loaded shotgun inside the man's home, with the safety off.
Maze, whose Crisis Intervention Team often deals with volatile and potentially dangerous situations, said each case is weighed carefully.
“There are times when people threaten, 'I'm going to get a gun and kill everybody here,'” he said. “Our first question is, 'Is there a gun readily accessible?'”
Allen County Deputy Prosecutor Adam Mildred said a typical case involves a suicidal person whose friends or family have contacted police. In those or situations where others might be harmed, it's up to police to decide whether to seize weapons.
Police must have “clear and convincing evidence” the person is dangerous, Mildred said.
“There's a very real need to address situations where a person is posing a risk to themselves through mental illness,” he said. “Yet, at the same time, our Constitution entitles a property owner due process and protection under the law.
“It's a balance. The (police) agencies need to protect people that are in those terrible situations and yet respect the Constitution and the Bill of Rights.”
Part of that balance is providing an opportunity for people to get their weapons back through the courts.
Gull said she can remember only a couple of times when she's agreed to allow police to return guns. People who return to court to ask for them back often have undergone therapy or other treatment, she said, which makes returning guns more likely.
Mildred, Maze and Gull all said the law has saved lives.
“I'm sure we have,” Maze said. “We know we prevented an immediate tragedy.”