Highland Park shooting reveals the limits of Illinois’ gun restrictions

HIGHLAND PARK, Ill. – Monday morning, Julie Morrison, a senator from the state of Illinois, sat in the back of a convertible and waved to parade guests from the fourth of July, her grandchildren walking next to the car. Ms. Morrison, a Democrat, had made the fight against gun violence a priority in his legislative career and had been the main sponsor of the state’s “red flag” law, which created a system where weapons can be taken from a person found to be dangerous.

Then shots erupted.

Ms. Morrison ran for safety and later asked how a mass shooting had taken place at a site with some of the strongest gun orders in the country. “Are there loopholes?” asked Mrs. Morrison on Wednesday. “Unfortunately, we now have the opportunity to look at it.”

The suspect in the shooting, Robert E. Crimo III, 21, had attracted the attention of police more than once, and had, despite warnings about his worrying behavior, obtained a shooting permit and purchased several weapons.

How a young man who had sent worrying signals managed to end up with a semi-automatic rifle in Illinois is a question that not only haunts the survivors of Monday’s deadly massacre in Highland Park, a suburb of Chicago. It is also a matter of federal importance that comes days after President Biden signed the most significant gun legislation passed in decades.

As details of Mr Crimo’s past continued to emerge, and as a judge ordered him detained without bail on charges of murder, it remained unclear whether the horrific episode revealed weaknesses in state restrictions on weapons or in the limits of even potent security measures in a system that ultimately depends on people’s assessments – the authorities, families, observers.

Ms. Morrison acknowledged that the effectiveness of certain gun laws was often limited by how people responded to them, including whether people informed authorities about friends or family members who exhibited alarming behavior. “I do not know how much we can legislate on human response; we can only provide the tools,” she said.

“It’s personal,” she said. “I’m angry. And this needs to change.”

In an initial court appearance Wednesday, where Mr. Crimo appeared via video, Ben Dillon, a prosecutor, described in full detail yet how officials say the attack unfolded on Monday.

Mr. Dillon said that Mr. Crimo used a fire escape to climb a roof in the city center during the holiday parade. There, Mr Dillon said, he opened fire – emptied a 30-round magazine, fired from another, and then inserted a third magazine. Officials found 83 bullet casings, said Mr. Dillon.

For hours after the shooting, which resulted in seven deaths, authorities searched for the suspect. Deputy Chief Christopher Covelli of the Lake County Sheriff’s Office said investigators believed he fled to Madison, Wisconsin, after the attack, but then returned to Illinois, where he was arrested. Chief Covelli said police thought Mr Crimo was seeing a holiday party in Madison and were considering using another rifle he had with him in the car to carry out another shooting there, but decided to avoid it.

At a news conference in Illinois State Police on Wednesday, officials defended how they handled Mr. Crimo’s application for a gun license, and released records showing he had told Highland Park officers in 2019 that he had been depressed and using drugs.

Under Illinois law, there are several options for authorities to intervene if a gun owner is considered to pose a dangerous risk. This begins with the application process for a firearms license, known in Illinois as a firearms owner’s identification card.

The application contains a wide range of questions about past crimes, failed drug tests or recent hospitalizations due to mental illness. It is submitted to the state police, where it goes through dozens of steps involving electronic and manual checking of national and state databases. At any point in that process, the state may determine that a person is not eligible. The vast majority, however, are approved; according to a 2021 report from the Illinois auditor, fewer than 4 percent of nearly 600,000 applications were rejected in 2018 and 2019.

Brendan Kelly, the director of the Illinois State Police, said Wednesday that he believed his agency was acting correctly when handling information about Mr. Crimo. It had no information that would have enabled the agency to deny him the license to own a gun, Mr. Kelly.

The licensing law authorizes local authorities such as police or school officials to file a report with Illinois State Police indicating that a person may pose a “clear and present danger.” The state police can then decide whether the notification fulfills the burden of revoking the person’s card.

Highland Park police had filed a “clear and present danger” report on Mr. Crimo in September 2019 after seizing 16 knives, a dagger and a sword from his home while responding to reports that he had made threats. According to State Police, his father told officers he owned the knives and they were all returned the same day. This was the second time this year that police have responded to reports of Mr Crimo’s behavior; the first involved a report of a suicide attempt.

But Mr. Kelly, the state police chief, said the Highland Park report did not clear the legal threshold to establish that Mr. Crimo, who denied to the officers that he wanted to harm himself or others, was a clear and present danger.

Mr. Kelly said how well the gun laws work rested not only on law enforcement but on the vigilance and follow-up of family members and friends.

“This is so dependent on the people who can be closest to the person who cares, the person who can pose a threat to himself, or the person who can pose a threat to others,” said Mr. Kelly.

Under the policies that were in place at the time, Mr. Kelly that the state still would not have had a copy of this report from Highland Park police when Mr. Crimo applied for a firearms owner’s ID card three months later with the sponsorship of his father. He had no disqualifying sentences, no detention, no psychiatric admissions, no “clear and present danger” designations when he sought permission to own weapons. He was approved.

By the end of 2020, he had purchased several weapons, including the Smith & Wesson semi-automatic rifle, which police say was used in Monday’s attack, and another rifle found in his car when he was arrested.

Officials have not said what they thought could have motivated the attack, but have said they had no reason to believe it was driven by racial or religious hatred.

Some in Highland Park’s large Jewish community said they recognized the accused man. Martin Blumenthal, who is in charge of security at the city’s northern suburb of Lubavitch Chabad Synagogue, said he recalled the man from an Easter service this year.

When he found his appearance suspicious, Mr. Blumenthal that he secretly knelt down at one point during the service and reached under the man’s seat to pat his little backpack down. It did not appear to have any weapons, Mr Blumenthal said.

He said he was now convinced the man was going to the synagogue to study it as a potential target. “He was quite sure to rule out the place,” said Mr. Blumenthal.

Prosecutors declined on Wednesday to say whether they were considering charges against any of the suspect’s family. Steven Greenberg, a lawyer representing the father, acknowledged that his client had sponsored his son’s gun license application, but said the father did not believe there was a problem and that he may not have fully understood what happened during the police visit in 2019, when officers seized knives from his son.

The submission of a “clear and present danger” report was not the only point in the last three years where the suspect’s intention to buy and carry a gun could have been thwarted.

In 2019, the state law on firearms bans came into force, the legislation sponsored by Ms. Morrison and often referred to as a Red Flag Act, in effect, which allows police to seize firearms if a judge determines that the owner of the weapons “poses an immediate and actual danger of causing personal injury to himself, himself or another.” Speak for Safety Illinois, an advocacy group, found that only 53 firearms bans were filed in the first two years of the law, nearly half of them in a single suburban Chicago county.

There is nothing to suggest that a restraining order on firearms has ever been requested in Mr Crimo’s case, despite his worrying behavior. This presents one of the difficult realities of legislating for public safety: Red flag laws only come into play when someone close to a potentially dangerous gun owner seeks an order.

“This was a textbook case about a red flag law that was not used,” said John Feinblatt, president of Everytown for Gun Safety, who has called for more restrictive gun laws. “The tool to invoke a red flag law existed and no one took the tool out of the box.”

Reporting is contributed by Robert clarified, Adam Goldman, Michael Levenson, Glenn Thrush and Luke Vander Plow.

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