Is there a law that could have saved the Capital Gazette?

Surely we can all agree that someone who said in court documents that he had sworn a “legally binding oath” to kill a former Annapolis Capital reporter should not have been able to purchase a gun. Yet Jarrod W. Ramos, the man charged in the Thursday killing of five members of the Capital Gazette staff, passed a criminal background check and bought a pump-action shotgun legally from a dealer. Maryland has some of the strictest gun laws in the country. How could this happen?

In Scott Dance’s news story exploring that question, the head of a Maryland gun rights group argues that this case proves the futility of trying to pass new restrictions on gun ownership. Rather, Mark Pennak, president of Maryland Shall Issue, said the problem was that officials had not prosecuted Mr. Ramos aggressively enough for past threats and harassment. His only criminal conviction came from a 2011 guilty plea in a harassment case, a misdemeanor that is not considered serious enough to warrant abridging a person’s rights to gun ownership under federal or Maryland law. It was eventually expunged from his record. In 2013, Capital officials told Anne Arundel County police about his harassment and threats against the paper and its staff, but officers concluded that he did not pose a real danger.

It’s easy to say after the fact that authorities let Mr. Ramos off easy and should have secured convictions against him for stalking or some other more serious crime that would have prevented him from buying a gun. But the issue points to a fundamental facet of our laws and practices related to guns: Even in Maryland, we err on the side of allowing some people who shouldn’t have guns to get them rather than run the risk of prohibiting ownership by some who don’t pose a legitimate threat.

For example, Maryland’s new “red flag” law, which allows the courts to prohibit gun ownership or purchases by a person deemed a risk to themselves or others, contains major limitations. Only a blood relative, spouse, dating partner, legal guardian or health or law enforcement professional can request an “extreme risk protective order” (not, say, a newspaper columnist or editor), and they last for a year at most. The law includes numerous references to the requirement that a judge consider the length of time since the alleged behavior, suggesting that one only need to stop making threats for a period of time before they should be forgotten. Mr. Ramos stopped posting hateful and threatening tweets about the Capital for a period of about two years. Then, on Thursday, he posted again, mere minutes before police say he started shooting.

So, yes, we certainly agree that police, prosecutors and judges could do more within the existing law to get guns out of the wrong hands. But even our supposedly tough laws aren’t sufficient.

We would make two other points about this tragedy that touch on our gun control debates in recent years. The first is that Mr. Ramos had a shotgun rather than an assault weapon. He bought his weapon in 2017, four years after Maryland banned the sale of assault weapons and large ammunition magazines in the wake of the Sandy Hook mass shooting. Maybe he would have bought an AR-15 or the like if it had been available, maybe not. But as lethal as the rampage was at the Capital Gazette newsroom, it almost certainly would have been worse if the gunman had used a semi-automatic rifle capable of firing potentially dozens of rounds without reloading.

The second point is the raison d’etre of Maryland Shall Issue — the state’s restrictive policy on the concealed-carry of guns in public. Maryland law limits concealed-carry permits to those who can demonstrate a particular threat to their safety. Gun rights groups like Maryland Shall Issue contend that the state should provide permits to anyone who passes background checks. Many who argue that point of view say that mass shootings would be less likely, or more easily thwarted, if more people were armed. But the Capital Gazette shootings show a flaw in that reasoning. Police arrived on the scene almost immediately but had no idea who was the attacker, whether there was more than one assailant, and the victims were. If multiple people had been armed, it would have raised the risk that another innocent person would have been harmed.

Whether the answer is better enforcement of existing laws of the passage of new ones, we should not throw up our hands after a tragedy like this and lament that nothing could have been done. We owe the victims that much.

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