Editor’s Note: Jill Filipovic is a journalist based in New York and Nairobi, Kenya, and the author of the book “The H-Spot: The Feminist Pursuit of Happiness.” Follow her on Twitter. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.
Travis Reinking, the man alleged to have shot up a Waffle House and snuffed out the lives of four innocent souls, thankfully is in custody. But he’s not the only one who should pay for this terrible crime if convicted: His father, Jeffrey Reinking, should in that case be held legally accountable, and arguably should face prosecution.
That is because police believe the elder Reinking returned his son’s guns — which had been taken from him – multiple times over, despite Travis Reinking’s erratic behavior and even FBI interference. Authorities revoked Travis’ firearms identification card and even confiscated his guns, but, investigators believe, his father returned them.
This shooting was not an unforeseeable event, nor was it a random tragedy. It was an act by a man who showed clear signs of aggression and mental illness and who had been deemed by authorities unfit for gun ownership.
It doesn’t take a genius to figure out why. He was arrested by the Secret Service last July for trying to enter a restricted area near the White House, apparently seeking a meeting with the President. That’s when the FBI reached out to the state of Illinois and requested that Travis’ firearm ID card be revoked; they saw him as a clear threat.
Authorities also seized from Travis Reinking a Kimber 9 mm handgun, a Bushmaster AR-15 style rifle, a CZ-USA .22-caliber rifle, a Remington 710 and random ammunition, according to a Tazewell County, Illinois, sheriff’s report. (The Bushmaster was recovered from the Waffle House shooting.)
But that wasn’t the first time Travis had run afoul of the law and showed signs of psychological distress. A month earlier, he was disruptive, yelling and exposing himself at a swimming pool; a sheriff advised Jeffrey Reinking to keep his son’s guns locked away. And a year before that, Travis’ parents had called the police because Travis became convinced the pop star Taylor Swift was stalking him. More recently, Travis took a car and led police in a chase, but was not arrested.
Jeffrey Reinking returned Travis’ guns to him at least three different times, despite these persistent and disturbing patterns, authorities say.
That Travis Reinking is alleged to have walked into a Waffle House dressed in only a jacket and opened fire is awful, but, no, it’s not shocking. Prosecutors should take criminal action against his father, and if there is no appropriate law under which to do so (although negligent homicide seems to fit the bill) the state legislature should take this opportunity to pen one.
So, too, should the families of the people allegedly killed by Travis Reinking sue his father for every penny he’s worth. They have lost their loved ones — their own lives have been turned to chaos – because of this shooting.
Parents of mentally ill children of course face significant hardship, and we don’t know what went on in the Reinking home. The overwhelming majority of mentally ill people never physically harm anyone else, but many people with major depressive and other psychological issues do harm themselves. It appears that Travis Reinking had not threatened anyone, but he was reportedly struggling with suicidal thoughts long before the Waffle House shooting, which makes it all the more disturbing that his own father allowed him access to guns.
In addition, gun ownership may have been part of the Reinking family culture or the regional culture, something “everyone does,” which — strange as it may sound to people in states with tougher gun laws — may make it seem like returning guns to a disturbed young man is not as big a deal. But this irresponsibility is part of the problem: It’s bred by reactionary politics and reflects a cultural norm that deserves condemnation and even criminal penalties.
Jeffrey Reinking isn’t the only parent who should have to take responsibility for any negligent and dangerous decisions when it comes to guns. Gun violence in the United States is so common that when a child gets hold of an unsecured gun and kills or injures a sibling or friend, it barely registers outside the local news. But those adults on whose watch this happens should also be held responsible; they should pay with jail time. Such shootings are accidents, but like drunk driving crashes, they are not unavoidable acts of God. Any time a loaded gun is accessible to a child, serious death or injury is reasonably foreseeable.
This latest mass shooting is another tragedy on a long list of made-in-America tragic gun crimes. As we work to reform the gun laws (or stiffen them) that make our country a gun-death outlier among peacetime nations, we should of course focus on the big-picture, impactful laws – but we shouldn’t neglect the ones that require all of us to be responsible citizens, and hold accountable those who allow guns to wind up in the wrong hands.