Would red flag laws have stopped the Lakewood Church shooter?

HOUSTON (Nexstar) — The criminal history and documented mental health struggles of the Lakewood Church shooter is reigniting calls for red flag laws, as the gunwoman’s mother-in-law described the incident as a “completely preventable horror.”

Before opening fire with an AR-15 in Houston’s Lakewood Church, 36-year-old Genesse Moreno had numerous encounters with law enforcement and the judicial system. She was arrested at least six times between 2005 and 2022, according to records obtained from the Texas Department of Public Safety.

PREVIOUS COVERAGE: The Lakewood Church shooter’s long record of red flags

Her charges include unlawful carrying of a weapon, assault of a public servant, assault causing bodily injury, forgery, theft and marijuana possession. Moreno was also put under an order for emotional detention in 2016. In Texas, an emergency detention order allows a court to detain a person with a mental illness who “poses a substantial risk of serious harm to themselves or to others.”

Investigators detailed a pattern of arrests, mental health issues and anti-Semitic writings that they say might have catalyzed Sunday’s attempted massacre. During the first 24 hours of the investigation, officials also uncovered “anti-Semitic writings” and said her AR-15 was decorated with a sticker that read “Palestine.”

“My daughter-in-law when she was taking medication for schizophrenia was a very sweet and loving woman,” Walli Carranza, the mother-in-law of Moreno wrote on social media Monday. “But mental illness is real illness and when family members seek emergency protections they’re not doing so for their own sake but for the sake of the person who is ill.”

Carranza also said she believes if Texas had “strong red flag laws,” that would have stopped her daughter-in-law “from owning or possessing a gun.”

Federal, state and local authorities are currently investigating the nature of Moreno’s firearm purchase. Investigators said Monday they believe she purchased the firearm she used in December legally.

Houston Police Chief Troy Finner said there are limitations to preventing bad actors, when asked if Moreno’s criminal record would have put her on their “radar.”

“She did have a history, if you want to say that, but there are millions on top of millions of people who have a history,” Finner told Nexstar.

Investigators are still trying to determine why Moreno targeted the popular megachurch, where renowned Joel Osteen is the senior pastor. Two people were injured, including Moreno’s 7-year-old son, who is in critical condition. She was killed by law enforcement on scene.

Would red flag laws would have prevented Moreno from getting an AR-15?

Twenty-one states and Washington D.C. have red flag laws, not including Texas. Such laws vary by state but generally allow law enforcement to temporarily take away an individual’s firearm with a court order. The judge must determine an individual poses an “imminent risk” of harming themselves or others before issuing an emergency protection order.

Without knowing how exactly the shooter obtained her firearm, it’s unclear if an extreme protector order — better known as red flag laws — would have stopped her from accessing the weapon.

Federal law mandates individuals to complete a firearms transactions form when buying from federally licensed dealers. The ATF’s form is used to determine if a citizen is prohibited by federal or state law from receiving a firearm.

It includes questions about whether an individual has been convicted of certain misdemeanors, like domestic violence, or if the individual is under indictment and/or has been convicted of a felony. There is some nuance on the form, asking individuals to also check “yes” even if a judge could have sentenced them to prison for more than a year, even if a shorter sentence was given.

Duke University sociologist Dr. Jeffrey Swanson, who has studied red flag laws throughout the country, said such policies have limitations.

“In the states that do have them, it tends to be spotty,” he said. “It is not a panacea, it’s a piece in the puzzle of gun violence prevention. It would work better if we had universal background checks, it would work better if we could do something about the very robust illegal gun market and the secondary gun market where people buy guns without background checks.”

Swanson was part of a study that researched red flag gun surrender orders in six states. He said researchers found that in 10% of the cases, judges issued risk protection orders due to the threat of mass casualty shootings, many for K-12 schools.

“Gun violence has two components: it’s the injurious behavior and all of the motivations for that…but then there’s the access to this really lethal technology,” he said. “We shouldn’t have to tolerate living in a society where people like that, at a time like that, have such easy access to something that’s designed to kill a lot of people in a very short period of time with minimal physical effort.”

Red flag laws remain a nonstarter in GOP-dominated Texas Legislature

Opponents argue that red flag laws may infringe on the rights of individuals who haven’t been found guilty of a crime.

Following the 2018 Santa Fe High School shooting, Gov. Greg Abbott encouraged lawmakers to explore red flag laws. No policy changes followed in the three subsequent legislation sessions. leaving Texas without these preventive measures.

After the Uvalde school shooting, U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, spearheaded federal legislation with modest gun law reforms, known as the Safer Communities Act.

It included funding for states that wanted to implement red flag programs, and equal funding for those without such policies like Texas. States without red flag laws are able to use that funding a variety of public safety intiatives, such as crisis intervention programs like outpatient treatment or mental health courts.

Although Texas’ senior senator is opposed to a national red flag law, his work on the bipartisan package led to backlash from the state’s GOP, which formally passed a resolution condemning Cornyn.

“It’s a major rail in the culture wars [and] in our political divide, which is unfortunate because this shouldn’t be a political issue. It should be an issue about people’s well-being and people dying,” Swanson said.

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