As Florida's red flag law aims to separate troubled children from guns, much more needs doing
Journalists Megan O’Matz and Brittany Wallman have published an excellently reported piece in the South Florida Sun Sentinel on the more than 100 Florida children who have had cases filed against them under the state’s new red flag law. Go read it.
Florida’s red flag law, like other states’, allows courts to restrict the firearms access of individuals deemed to pose an imminent threat of violence, either to themselves or to others. That it would be be applied even to teen and preteen children was both foreseen and intentional: The law was passed in response to the Parkland mass murder, in which a disturbed 19-year-old killed 17 of his former classmates and injured again as many. And in the United States today, and specifically in Florida, children with severe diagnosed and undiagnosed mental illnesses can access the weapons of murder swiftly and easily—typically in their own homes.
It is important to recognize that most of the teens arrested after making threats of violence were in fact serious. Some were obsessed with violence and murder; some fervently wanted revenge against classmate enemies. Mental illness is the common theme, from schizophrenia to post-traumatic stress disorder to obsessive-compulsive disorder to suicide attempts, and it is both dangerous and horribly cruel to presume that children do not suffer from the same illnesses that can lead to violent behavior in adults. There is a difference between fistfighting teens threatening to “kill” each other and a teen making the same threat on social media with a photograph showing the weapon to be used, or another who fills their journal with descriptions and drawings and plans for committing horrific violence against others.
It is also cruel and dangerous to assume that all of these children could be “controlled” if only their parents sought more treatment or doctors prescribed different medications. It is false. A cruelty of this world is that many among us will be afflicted with illnesses that medical science cannot, or cannot yet, cure. The number of well and healthy humans who could be driven to violence, if their personal circumstances were extreme enough or their personal despair great enough, is many times greater.
The controlling factor, then, is the guns. O’Matz and Wallman report that in over half of investigated cases, those children had access to guns, including “assault weapons in their homes,” typically the unsecured or poorly hidden weapons of family members. The access to guns and ammunition is the factor that elevates a troubled teen child’s threats of mass murder into the actual act: There is no other tool for committing multiple murders that can be acquired as easily or made to function with as little effort.
It comes as no surprise that some of the teens considered to be the most dangerous threats came from families awash in guns and ammunition, with parents who are not always eager to comply with orders to remove those weapons from their household. It also comes as no surprise that in at least a quarter of the red flag cases, the teens and preteens had a prior history of violent acts. An expressed wish to commit suicide was present in more than a third of the cases, the Sun Sentinel report notes.
“[C]ommunity leaders say the details confirm a need for a sustained and comprehensive education and mental health program to dissuade young people from using threats of lethal violence as their go-to solution to anger, frustration, bullying or hopelessness,” O’Matz and Wallman write. That is both true and, of course, insufficient. Past generations of children have said violent and shocking things in anger—but children carrying out mass murders is new, and seems to be almost exclusively American. The idea that we will identify and then dissuade all potentially violent preteens from violence is implausible.
We can, however, prevent troubled teens and preteens from reaching into their parents’ closet, pulling out an assault rifle and a hundred rounds of ammunition, and walking into their schools with the intent of murdering dozens. It is, in fact, easy—if we can first convince those same parents and other relatives that they, too, ought not to have weapons of war tucked behind a row of coats just in case they themselves decide on any given morning that an identified subset of their fellow citizens now needs to be summarily murdered.
It is that last part that remains the sticking point.