Although Maryland has some of the most restrictive gun laws in the country, none could have prevented the massacre of five people in The Capital newsroom Thursday, policymakers said.
The weapon used in the attack has been described by police as a pump-action shotgun. While “long guns” like shotguns and rifles are less tightly regulated than handguns, a purchaser nonetheless must undergo a criminal background check to buy one from a dealer, as Jarrod W. Ramos did. But Ramos was never convicted of a crime serious enough to bar such a purchase.
He pleaded guilty in 2011 to harassing a woman he had known in high school, but harassment isn’t among the misdemeanors that prohibit gun ownership under state or federal law.
Maryland has a new law, which becomes effective in October, that will allow judges to seize guns from a person deemed a danger to themselves or others. But the group of people who can petition for such an order is narrow — besides police and medical professionals, it includes only spouses, dating partners and close relatives.
So even had the law been in effect and had there been a threat, neither Capital staff nor the woman he once harassed would have been able to file a “red flag” petition about the alleged shooter, experts said.
The Capital shooting has already caused some lawmakers to begin talking about ways to tighten gun laws as others discuss how best to strengthen mental health services — anything to enact protections to deter another mass shooting.
“If someone is intent on doing something like the tragedy that occurred, maybe we can’t prevent it,” said Del. Dereck E. Davis, a Prince George’s County Democrat. “But that doesn’t mean we don’t keep trying.”
At a Saturday night rally in Baltimore for Democratic gubernatorial candidate Ben Jealous, U.S. Sen. Ben Cardin said the Annapolis shooting was a reminder of why Congress also needs to revisit the issue of more restrictive gun laws.
“Our hearts are heavy about what happened in Annapolis,” Cardin said. “We need to pass sensible gun safety legislation.”
Gun rights advocates say there is no law that could have prevented the targeted rampage on the Annapolis newsroom, but that existing criminal laws — if followed — can effectively prevent dangerous individuals from buying weapons.
Mark Pennak, president of Maryland Shall Issue, blamed prosecutors for failing to use existing criminal laws to effectively punish Ramos for his past actions, and keep him from buying a firearm.
Police say Ramos’ anger with the Capital stemmed from a July 2011 article detailing his harassment of the woman he knew in high school. Ramos pleaded guilty to harassing her, received a 90-day suspended sentence with 18 months’ probation and was required to receive psychological treatment. Had he been convicted of stalking — considered a more serious misdemeanor than harassment — Ramos could have been prevented from buying the shotgun he purchased last year, Pennak said.
The authorities allowed a proven harasser “to get by,” he said. “You don’t need another law for that.”
Anne Arundel County State’s Attorney Wes Adams, who was not in office at the time of Ramos’ harassment conviction, declined to comment. Frank Weathersbee, who held the office at the time, died in 2015.
Ramos, 38, has been charged with five counts of first-degree murder. He is accused of killing five Capital employees: editor and columnist Rob Hiaasen, 59; reporter Wendi Winters, 65; editorial page editor Gerald Fischman, 61; editor and sports writer John McNamara, 56; and sales assistant Rebecca Smith, 34. Two other staff members, Rachael Pacella and Janel Cooley, were injured during the attack. They have been released from the hospital.
Police encountered the Laurel man as early as 2010, when the woman told officers Ramos’ messages to her had turned “vulgar,” court documents say.
A judge approved a restraining order in 2011 and Ramos pleaded guilty. (The conviction was later expunged.)
Court records show Ramos’ aggression did not stop. The same woman received two more restraining orders against him in 2012 and 2013. He was also sending aggressive messages to staff at The Capital.
The newspaper met with county police in 2013 to discuss Ramos, a police report shows. The report said his messages mentioned phrases like “murderous rampage,” “journalist hell” and “open season.” An officer concluded he “did not believe that Mr. Ramos was a threat to employees for The Capital.”
As recently as 2014, Ramos wrote in court filing that he had “sworn a legal oath” to kill Eric Hartley, The Capital columnist who had written about his harassment case.
None of that prevented a licensed firearms dealer from selling Ramos a 12-gauge pump-action shotgun in 2017.
Shotguns and rifles are not on a list of “regulated firearms” under state law. But buying one does require a person to pass a federal background check. Buyers are disqualified if they are found to be drug abusers, fugitives or convicted domestic abusers, for example. Anyone convicted of federal crimes punishable by at least a year in prison are also barred from buying firearms.
Only active protective orders prevent a federally regulated firearms purchase. The most recent order against Ramos expired in March 2014, court records show.
Convictions for state crimes also disqualify people under the federal background check system, but only for offenses punishable by at least two years in prison.
A first offense of harassment carries a maximum penalty of up to 90 days, the punishment Ramos received. But stalking, a similar and often simultaneous charge, warrants up to a 5-year sentence.
While a judge could not have predicted an outburst of violence seven years in the future, in hindsight suggests that state laws may not be adequately preventing dangerous people from obtaining guns, said Sen. Robert A. Zirkin, a Baltimore County Democrat.
He said he and Senate colleagues have begun discussing how to prevent another tragedy like The Capital shooting.
“That’s the type of an individual that you at least want to have the judge have some discretion on taking away gun rights,” Zirkin said.
The General Assembly passed the “red flag” law this year to do just that.
As of October, Maryland will be one of 11 states that authorize “extreme risk protection orders,” giving judges authority to strip firearms from individuals shown to be a threat to themselves or others, even if they are not accused or convicted criminals. Six of those state laws were signed in the wake of the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida in February.
The laws vary by state — in Maryland, only blood relatives, spouses, dating partners, co-parents or legal guardians can file “red flag” petitions. Lawmakers narrowed that privilege based on concerns that the petitions could be filed vindictively.
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Zirkin questioned why the opportunity was not extended to any person who has been granted a protective order or the target of a convicted stalker.
“That seems like a modification we will take a look at,” he said. “That seems like a modification that should be made.”
Maryland is routinely ranked among states with the toughest laws regulating gun sales and ownership. Major gun legislation has included prohibiting the sale of some assault weapons and granting law enforcement discretion over denying applications to wear or carry handguns.
Maryland also requires that a background check be conducted before the sale of all regulated firearms — mostly handguns — even in private sales. Because shotguns and rifles aren’t regulated under that state law, a background check isn’t conducted when they are sold privately.
Next year, lawmakers could revisit whether the sale of long guns should receive that scrutiny, Davis said. Past attempts to add shotguns and rifles to the list of regulated firearms in Maryland have failed — largely out of concerns that they are used commonly by hunters and farmers, but rarely in crimes. Davis has proposed such bills in the past, and said he will explore similar legislation before next year’s General Assembly session.
Others say they will instead continue to look at mental health issues. Republican Sen. J.B. Jennings, the Senate minority leader, said mental health reforms are more important than gun laws.
“This guy was sick and he needed help,” Jennings said. “Somebody should have called or the courts should have intervened and put this guy away.”