Airport shooting shows it's not easy to keep guns from the mentally ill

When Esteban Santiago walked into an Alaska FBI field office two months ago to complain about the government controlling his mind, law enforcement was concerned enough about his delusional ramblings to seize the 9-mm pistol stowed in his car.

In the aftermath of his rampage at Fort Lauderdale’s airport last week, where he used that same gun, the question was inevitable: How could a U.S. Army veteran, recently hospitalized for a psychiatric evaluation, get his gun back with such ease?

The reality is that whether it’s in Alaska or Florida, it takes a lot to deny someone the right to own a gun, even if they have struggled with mental illness. And the reasons are as complex as the gun-control debate is divisive.

As with many states, Alaska boasts no law addressing gun ownership by people suffering from the mental illness. Federal law prohibiting gun ownership by someone who was legally “committed to a mental institution” or “adjudicated mentally defective” likely didn’t apply – Santiago’s psychiatric treatment was not court ordered, nor long enough to qualify as a” commitment.”

The FBI episode and his January brush with the law – a domestic violence arrest that did not end in a felony conviction – were simply not enough to keep him from owning a firearm.

“Being under delusions and going to the FBI office and talking in a way that didn’t make sense to people is not the same thing as committing a crime,” said Mark Regan, the legal director at the Disability Law Center of Alaska.

Santiago, 26, killed five people last week at the Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport, another mass shooting that again has cast scrutiny on the tricky balance between lawful gun ownership and protecting the public from dangerous people packing lethal firepower.

The debate spurred by the Fort Lauderdale airport shooting, however, also comes with what-ifs.

Starting with this one: Even if Santiago had never gotten his gun back from Alaska cops, he could have easily and legally obtained another. If he bought a gun from a gun show or a private dealer, they have no requirements for background checks that might flag a mental-health history.

In Santiago’s case, his family has repeatedly told reporters that the U.S. Army veteran returned from a tour in Iraq war in 2011 a changed man, clearly suffering from mental illness. What treatment, if any, he received in those years afterward remains unknown.

Mental-health experts also stress that whatever Santiago’s exact diagnosis — and some have speculated that war-related Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder could have played a role — the mass shooting is an outlier.

“In general, people with mental illness are no more dangerous than the general public. If you’re on medication, you’re much less dangerous,” said Miami-Dade Judge Steve Leifman, who helped craft a Florida law designed ot keep guns out of the hands of certain mentally ill people. “With firearms, as it pertains to people with mental illness, it usually results in suicide, not homicide.”

It was Santiago’s visit to the FBI field office in Anchorage on Nov. 7 that appears to have been a missed chance to prevent last week’s carnage.

Authorities say that Santiago – his newborn son in tow – walked into the field office, saying the CIA was forcing him to watch Islamic State videos. Officials said his statements were “incoherent” and “disjointed.”

His girlfriend was summoned to pick up the baby. The FBI called Anchorage police and he was committed him for an evaluation.

Under Alaska law – which is similar to the Baker Act-statute in Florida – Santiago could have been detained for an evaluation for up to 72 hours, either voluntarily or against his will. If doctors deemed him to be a danger to himself or others, authorities could have petitioned an Alaska court for him to stay an extra 30 days, something he could have also agreed to. But Alaskan authorities said Santiago was only hospitalized for four days, ending his stay at the state-run Alaska Psychiatric Institute, or API.

Santiago would later tell Florida investigators that he was diagnosed in Alaska with possible schizophrenia, law-enforcement sources have told the Miami Herald. The exact details of his treatment and condition remain confidential.

Nevertheless, he was stabilized enough to be released, which means he was likely never technically “committed,” making the federal gun law moot.

“Such a relatively short duration at API suggests that it wasn’t a 30-day commitment – then this part of the law wouldn’t apply,” Regan said.

Santiago was allowed to pick up his gun at the Anchorage police department one month after he got his mental-health evaluation.

“This is not somebody that would’ve been prohibited based on the information that they had. I think law enforcement acted within the laws that they have,” Alaska U.S. Attorney Karen Loeffler said.

Even had had the same scenario played out in Florida, which boasts a law designed to keep guns out of the hands of certain people who have received mental-health treatment, Santiago would likely have still been returned his gun.

Florida’s law, passed in 2013 in response to the Sandy Hook mass school shooting, was designed to flag certain people who have voluntarily agreed to treatment at a mental institution after being committed for an evaluation under the state’s Baker Act.

Those people’s names are now sent to a federal database that informs retailers who is prohibited from buying a gun.

But that law wouldn’t have applied to Santiago anyway – he already owned his gun. Still, more attention needs to be paid to standardizing gun laws, said Judge Leifman, who has earned national praise for his work creating programs to better treat mentally ill people

“It really begs the question, do we need consistency across the country on these issues?” Leifman said of the airport shooters. “There is nothing to prevent someone who may have been mentally ill purchasing a firearm, then taking it to another jurisdiction.”

Answers may also lie in new state laws designed to allow loved ones or police to petition a court to seize firearms if someone is exhibiting dangerous behavior. Right now, only California, Washington state, Connecticut and Indiana have variations of the law.

“These laws are very new,” said Jonas Oransky, a senior counsel with Everytown for Gun Safety, a Washington D.C.-gun control group. “It does seem that [Santiago] would have been a pretty good candidate, at least in Washington and California. He had a pretty troubled history with both domestic violence and mental health.”

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