This could have prevented Lafayette movie theater killings

Story highlights

  • Joshua Horwitz: Law enforcement, family should be able to ask courts to take guns away from troubled people who may commit violence
  • California lawmakers approved Gun Violence Restraining Order that could be a national model, he says

Joshua Horwitz is executive director of the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence, a research and advocacy organization. An attorney, he has represented victims and municipalities in lawsuits against the gun industry and is the co-author of "Guns, Democracy, and the Insurrectionist Idea." The opinions expressed in this commentary are his.

(CNN)Following Thursday's tragedy in a movie theater in Lafayette, Louisiana -- in which a gunman killed two people and wounded nine others -- America is once again searching for answers to how such a massacre could have been prevented. At this point we can hardly go a week without a high-profile mass shooting in this country, and the slaughter in Charleston and Chattanooga is still fresh in our minds.

Joshua Horwitz
The gun lobby's response of "more guns" is predictable (and critical to its industry's financial prospects), but Americans who are truly concerned about this violence are asking a different question: How can we keep those who are in crisis, and at an elevated risk of violence, from obtaining firearms?
A policy recently enacted in California, the Gun Violence Restraining Order, or GVRO, would seem to hold enormous promise for those looking to stop the next gunman before he can carry out his plans.
    The GVRO is based on the same principle as a domestic violence restraining order. It would allow family members and/or law enforcement to go before a judge and request that guns be temporarily removed from an individual who is likely to be dangerous toward himself and/or others (while allowing for due process).
    Notably, a GVRO does not rely solely on mental illness as a marker for violence. As research shows, the overwhelming majority of individuals with mental illness will never be violent toward others (the risk of self-harm is far greater). Stronger indicators of risk include a history of violent behavior, domestic violence and drug or alcohol abuse.
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    The GVRO became law in California following the 2014 mass shooting at the University of California-Santa Barbara in Isla Vista. The gunman in that case, Elliot Rodger, had been subject to a welfare check, but law enforcement had no authority to remove his guns. California lawmakers, to their credit, acted quickly and decisively to prevent the next tragedy from happening.
    Like Rodger, recent mass shooters have also exhibited warning signs before obtaining firearms. Accused Charleston gunman Dylann Roof had run-ins with the police and was arrested on a charge of possession of a controlled substance and trespassing at a local mall.
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    In March, an off-duty police officer questioned him about loitering and found parts for an AR-15 rifle and six 40-round magazines in his car. Roof also reportedly had a tendency to get drunk and tell his friends about his plans to commit mass murder. After one of these rants, a friend took his gun away, only to return it the following day. A friend said Roof told him his mother also temporarily took a gun away from him, but she had no means to prevent him from buying another one.
    In Chattanooga, 24-year-old gunman Mohammad Youssef Abdulazeez had a long history of depression, having being treated for it as young as 12 or 13. In adulthood, his behavior became troubling as he struggled with drug and alcohol abuse. In 2013, he lost a job at a nuclear power plant in Ohio after reportedly failing a drug test. Earlier this year, Abdulazeez had a DUI arrest. He wrote regularly in a diary that revealed suicidal thoughts and a desire to become a martyr. His father knew his son was stockpiling guns, and he was concerned about it, according to The Washington Post.
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    And now we have Lafayette shooter John Russell Houser, a 59-year-old man with a documented history of violence and mental illness. It appears that nearly everyone who came into contact with Houser saw him as a threat. In 2006, he was denied a concealed carry permit by the Russell County, Alabama, sheriff following an arson arrest. In 2008, Houser's mental health deteriorated, and he was involuntarily committed. He was the subject of a protective order sought by his wife that same year. During this period, she removed all the firearms from their household out of fear for what he might do.
    A society whose citizens can no longer peaceably attend church, see a movie or study in school is a society that can no longer call itself free. To state the obvious, James Madison and our Founders did not ratify the Second Amendment so that men such as John Russell Houser could obtain guns, legally or otherwise. Preventing killers like this from arming to the teeth is imperative if we are to "insure domestic Tranquility" as envisioned by our Constitution.
    That begs the question. What if South Carolina, Tennessee and Louisiana had put a GVRO policy in place? Family and law enforcement in each of these cases saw the red flags, and in Houser's case they had taken some steps. What if state legislators had provided them with a new means to intervene and disarm their loved ones before the shooting ever started?