Highland Park shooting reveals limits of Illinois gun restrictions

HIGHLAND PARK, Ill. — On Monday morning, Julie Morrison, an Illinois state senator, sat in the back of a convertible, waving to onlookers at the Fourth of July parade, her grandchildren walking alongside the car. Ms Morrison, a Democrat, had made tackling gun violence a priority in her legislative career and had been the chief sponsor of the state’s ‘Red Flag’ law, which established a system in which guns fire can be taken from someone who turned out to be dangerous.

Then gunshots rang out.

Ms Morrison found herself running for her safety and later asked how a mass shooting happened in a place that had some of the strictest gun ordinances in the country. “Are there flaws? Ms Morrison asked on Wednesday. “Unfortunately, we now have the opportunity to review this.”

The shooting suspect, 21-year-old Robert E. Crimo III, had come to the attention of police more than once and, despite warnings about his disturbing behavior, had obtained a firearms license and purchased several fire arms.

How a young man who sent disturbing signals ended up with a semi-automatic rifle in Illinois is a question that not only haunts survivors of Monday’s deadly massacre in Chicago suburb Highland Park. It’s also a matter of federal significance, coming just days after President Biden signed into law the most significant gun legislation passed in decades.

As details about Mr. Crimo’s past continued to emerge and a judge on Wednesday ordered him held without bail for murder, it was unclear whether the horrific episode exposed any weaknesses in the restrictions on the State on guns, or within the limits of even strong safeguards in a system that ultimately rests on the judgments of people – authorities, families, observers.

Ms Morrison acknowledged that the effectiveness of some gun laws is often limited by how people react to them, including whether people tell authorities about friends or family members who are showing alarming behavior. “I don’t know how far we can legislate human response; we can only provide the tools,” she said.

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

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

Mr. Dillon said Mr. Crimo used an emergency exit to climb onto a downtown rooftop during the holiday parade. There, Mr Dillon said, he opened fire – emptying a 30-round magazine, firing from another, then inserting a third magazine. Officials recovered 83 bullet casings, Dillon said.

For hours after the shooting, which left seven people dead, authorities searched for the suspect. Deputy Chief Christopher Covelli of the Lake County Sheriff’s Office said investigators believe he fled to Madison, Wis., after the attack but later returned to Illinois, where he had been arrested. Chief Covelli said police believe Mr Crimo attended a holiday celebration in Madison and considered using a second gun he had with him in the car to carry out another shooting there, but decided not to.

At an Illinois State Police press conference on Wednesday, officials explained how they handled Mr. Crimo’s firearms license application and released documents showing he told officers at Highland Park in 2019 that he was depressed and using drugs.

Under Illinois law, authorities have several options to intervene if a firearm owner is deemed to pose a dangerous risk. It starts with the process of applying for a firearms license, known in Illinois as a gun owner’s identification card.

The app includes a long list of questions about past felony convictions, failed drug tests, or recent hospitalizations for mental illness. It is submitted to the state police, where it goes through dozens of steps, involving electronic and manual checks of national and state databases. At any point in this process, the state could determine that a person is not eligible. However, a large majority is approved; according to a 2021 report by the Illinois Auditor General, less than 4% of nearly 600,000 applications were denied in 2018 and 2019.

Illinois State Police Superintendent Brendan Kelly said Wednesday he believed his agency had acted correctly when handling information about Mr. Crimo. He had no information that would have allowed the agency to deny him a license to own a firearm, Mr Kelly said.

The licensing law empowers local authorities such as police or school officials to file a report with the Illinois State Police that a person may present a “clear and present danger.” The state police can then decide if the report meets the charge to revoke that 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 he had made threats. According to state police, her father told officers he had the knives, and they were all returned the same day. It was the second time that year that police had responded to reports of Mr Crimo’s behaviour; the first involved a report of an attempted suicide.

But Mr. Kelly, the director of state police, said the Highland Park report did not cross the legal threshold to determine that Mr. Crimo, who denied officers he wanted to harm himself or himself other people, was a clear and present danger.

Mr Kelly said making gun laws work depends not just on law enforcement, but on the vigilance and monitoring of family members and friends.

“It depends so much on who may be closest to the person involved, who may pose a threat to themselves or who may pose a threat to others,” Kelly said.

Under policies at the time, Mr. Kelly said the state still would not have had a copy of that report from the Highland Park police when Mr. Crimo asked for an owner ID card. firearm three months later with the sponsorship of his father. He had no disqualifying convictions, no restraining orders, no psychiatric admissions, no “clear and present danger” designation when he applied for permission to possess firearms. It was approved.

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

Officials did not say what they believe motivated the attack, but said they had no reason to believe it was motivated by racial or religious hatred.

Some members of the large Jewish community in Highland Park said they recognized the accused. Martin Blumenthal, head of security at the city’s North Suburban Lubavitch Chabad Synagogue, said he recalled the man from a Passover service this year.

Finding his appearance suspicious, Mr Blumenthal said he surreptitiously knelt down at one point during the service and reached under the man’s seat to pat his small backpack. It did not appear to contain weapons, Mr. Blumenthal said.

He said he was now convinced the man had gone to the synagogue to investigate him as a potential target. “He was definitely breaking up the place,” Mr. Blumenthal said.

Prosecutors declined to say Wednesday whether they were considering charges against the suspect’s family members. Steven Greenberg, an attorney representing the father, acknowledged that his client sponsored his son’s gun license application, but said the father did not believe there was a problem and could not. -not being fully understood what happened during the police visit in 2019 when officers seized knives. of his son.

The filing of a “clear and present danger” report was not the only time in the past three years when the suspect’s intent to purchase and carry a firearm could have been thwarted.

In 2019, the state’s Firearms Restraining Order Act, legislation sponsored by Ms. Morrison and often referred to as the red flag law, came into effect, allowing police to seize firearms if a judge determines the owner firearms” poses an immediate and present danger of harm to self, self, or others. Speak for Safety Illinois, an advocacy group, found that only 53 firearms prohibition orders had been filed in the first two years of the law, nearly half of them in a single suburban Chicago county.

There is no indication that a firearms restraining order was ever sought in Mr. Crimo’s case, despite his troubling 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 asks for an order.

“It was a textbook case of a red flag law that went unused,” said John Feinblatt, president of Everytown for Gun Safety, which has called for more restrictive gun laws. fire. “The tool to invoke a red flag law existed and no one took the tool out of the box.”

The report was provided by Robert Chiarito, Adam Goldman, Michael Levenson, Thrush Glenn and Luc Vander Ploeg.

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