Americans are incredulous at the news of the Florida airport shooting. Not because a man could unobtrusively stroll into a large airport, calmly draw a weapon out of his waistband and shoot down 11 people, killing five of them, before being arrested — that’s not hard to believe. Unfortunately, such acts of terror or madness happen far too frequently throughout the world.
The part that strains credulity is the role played by law enforcement officials — or, more accurately, the role they didn’t play.
The lax security at Fort Lauderdale airport, which allowed a man to enter the baggage claim area with a barely concealed loaded gun, beggars the imagination. But appalling as it is, even that does not compare to the nearly unbelievable background story. For, by all reports, the shooter, former Army reservist Esteban Santiago, 26, was already known to the FBI as an armed lunatic.
Santiago walked into an Alaska FBI office on Nov. 7 “to report that his mind was being controlled by a U.S. intelligence agency,” according to Special Agent in Charge Marlin Ritzman. Similarly, Anchorage Police Chief Chris Tolley disclosed that “Santiago was having terroristic thoughts and believed he was being influenced by IS.” The local police were called in to retrieve a gun from his car outside, likely the same weapon subsequently used in the Florida shooting.
Santiago was then taken for a mental health evaluation. So far, no more, no less than you would expect of responsible law enforcement officials.
But four days later he was released. No diagnosis or treatment were indicated. A month later, the handgun found in his car was given back to him — no restrictions imposed, no further questions asked.
“There have been concerns raised about why Mr. Santiago was not placed on a no-fly list. I want to be clear: During our initial investigation we found no ties to terrorism,” Ritzman explained at a press conference. “He broke no laws when he came into our office making disjointed comments about mind control.”
Right, admission of insanity or strange behavior is not a crime. Being out of touch with reality, suffering hallucinations or delusions of one kind or another, are not in themselves criminal activities. Individuals with such issues deserve compassion and professional care. But if they could reasonably pose a danger to themselves or others, that’s another matter.
As to the issue of whether authorities should have returned Santiago’s potential murder weapon and why he was not put on a no-fly list, there is ample reason to question the FBI agent’s judgment.
The law says that a person with a history of mental illness is ineligible to purchase a gun. People who have& been involuntarily committed to a mental institution,& found incompetent to stand trial, or unable to manage their own affairs due to mental illness, are all ineligible. Furthermore, the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS)& provides such data to gun dealers, who must run checks on prospective buyers before a sale is made.
Although there are ongoing issues about disclosure of confidential data, and practice varies among the states, in this case no issue of privacy was involved. The “information” was not stored away in a database; it was self-evident to at least two eyewitnesses. And yet, incredibly, they gave him back his gun!
The U.S. attorney for Alaska, Karen Loeffler, defended the conduct of the law officers, saying that federal law requires that someone be “adjudicated mentally ill” for him or her to be prohibited from owning a handgun, which she said is difficult.
Difficult? The FBI agent and the police chief are not psychiatrists, but they do not seem to have had much difficulty gaining a pretty accurate idea of Santiago’s mental condition.
Perhaps the key word here is “adjudicated.” Loeffler apparently means that you have to legally establish mental illness before you can take a gun away from someone. And that, the authorities, for some reason, did not do.
Nor was that voluntary walk-in to the FBI office the only time they had heard from Santiago before his rampage. In January 2016, he was arrested and charged with assault after a violent argument with someone in Anchorage. The complainant told investigators that he broke down the door, choked her and hit her on the side of the head. So there was also a record of violence to consider before letting him have his gun.
While it is impossible for mortals to totally prevent tragedies of this sort from occurring, there is much more that can be done to try to protect the innocent, both in regard to increasing security in all public areas — including baggage claim areas — and making certain that dangerous weapons are kept out of the hands of those most likely to misuse them.