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[Martin Schram] Red flags can’t wave themselves

Red flags will just hang like limp noodles if their flag-wavers go AWOL on breezeless days. Left unattended, those red bits of cloth will signal no warning alert, send no sense of alarm that urgent action is needed to save lives.

And the same goes for even our best-intentioned red flag laws -- such as the one the US Congress just approved, touching off a burst of belated bipartisan self-congratulation. Red flag laws can prove every bit as limp and useless as those bits of cloth, if the laws are left to somehow enforce themselves, by federal, state and local law enforcement officials.

That is one of the tragic lessons we are now being forced to confront after a twisted young shooter, armed with new combat-style weapons he was allowed to legally purchase -- despite police warnings! -- rained 83 flesh-ripping combat rounds down a family-friendly Fourth of July parade through Chicago’s northern suburb of Highland Park.

The director of the Illinois State Police, Brendan Kelly, wants to be sure you know his agency handled everything strictly by the book. Kelly told reporters Wednesday he believes his agency handled everything appropriately. Even when it allowed Robert E. Crimo III to buy all those weapons -- despite the fact that the state police received warnings of two red flag incidents in which Highland Park police classified Crimo as a “clear and present danger.”

You be the judge. (And in this case, you needed to be -- because Kelly’s state police never brought the matter to a court’s attention before allowing the underage youth to buy his mass-killing combat weapon.) Here, Your Honors, is what Kelly’s state police knew before allowing Crimo to buy his arsenal, on the grounds that it didn’t have enough info to ask a judge to decide:

-- In September 2019, Highland Park police went to Crimo’s home after a person warned police the then-teenager had bladed weapons and threatened to “kill everybody” in the house. Police confiscated 16 knives, a dagger and a sword. Earlier that year, police had gone to the house after receiving a report that the youth had attempted suicide.

-- The Highland Park police filed what is called a “clear and present danger” report with the Illinois State Police. The youth’s father, Robert E. Crimo Jr., who lives elsewhere, reportedly told police all the bladed weapons were his and his son was just holding them for him. Police gave the knives, dagger and sword to the father.

-- Three months later, the youth, not yet 21, applied for a Firearm Owner’s Identification card, with his father signing as his sponsor. By 2020, young Crimo owned several guns, including the rapid-firing semi-automatic rifle he allegedly used to kill seven and wound many more.

The police who believed that the youth’s possession of 16 knives, a dagger and a sword was a “clear and present danger” may well have been able to convince a judge that possession of multiple rapid-firing rifles, magazines carrying 30 rounds and huge amounts of ammunition was at least as dangerous as those sharp blades.

Illinois State Police Director Kelly wants to be sure you know that his agency doesn’t have a copy of the report filed by the Highland Park police. Illinois’ red flag law was in effect in 2019. But the state police didn’t choose to ask a judge to decide whether the youth, who had no arrest record, should be allowed to buy his mass-killing arsenal.

Kelly emphasized Wednesday that family and friends should take the lead in matters such as this. “This is so dependent upon the people that may be closest around the individual of concern, the person that may be posing a threat to themselves … or others,” said Kelly.

Time out: Perhaps family members sometimes cannot lead an effort to block a gun purchase by an unstable family member -- out of fear for their own safety at home. This may have been the duty of the state police to enforce public safety by asking a judge to decide whether a “Firearm Restraining Order” should be issued, as provided in Illinois’ red flag law.

As explained in an Illinois state agency report, a judge can oversee the issuance of a 14-day Emergency Firearm Restraining Order, followed by a six-month Firearm Restraining Order and can hold a full hearing into the case.

Back in Washington, armed with our new federal red flag provisions, the attorney general and secretary of homeland security need to act at once. They need to swiftly provide all states with a template of procedures that will assure that red flag alerts have at least an enforceable chance of safeguarding us all.

Martin Schram
Martin Schram, an op-ed columnist for Tribune News Service, is a veteran Washington journalist, author and TV documentary executive. -- Ed.

(Tribune Content Agency)

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