Illinois active shooter: Standing at the crossroads of mental health & the law
Protecting our communities from threats takes intense effort, rational behavior and logical thinking
This article is reprinted with permission from Calibre Press
The Fourth of July shooting in Highland Park, Illinois left 7 dead and 30 wounded. For those who don’t know the area, this is not in the City of Chicago. Highland Park is a quiet, close-knit suburban city on the shores of Lake Michigan in Lake County. This is a peaceful, picturesque community that is shaken to the core by this senseless act of violence. This hits home for me since I live and work in Lake County myself. I also have friends who live in Highland Park who thankfully were safe. My heart breaks for the tragic loss of life and the sense of safety that was forever lost to the community.
While the community has not even begun to heal, sadly enough, the calls for more gun control began almost immediately from politicians who seem to never let a tragedy go to waste, especially in an election year. I find it ironic that the same Governor who signed the Safe-T Act, which further limits proactive policing and eliminates cash bail in Illinois starting January 2023, also thanks law enforcement while pushing for more gun control.
The Mayor of Highland Park wasted no time herself in calling for more gun laws. Interestingly enough, Highland Park is a home rule community that has had a strict assault weapon ban since 2013 that prohibits a number of specific rifles, shotguns and pistols as well as magazines over 10 rounds.
There’s all this talk about illegal guns, and politicians want to come up with more laws to stop that. Many are asking the following questions: “Why did this not stop the shooter?” “Where were those red flags?” “Did he go to a gun show or get his guns in Indiana?”
Nope. It turns out that the high-powered rifle he used in the shooting was purchased legally in Illinois. Another legally obtained rifle was recovered from the shooter’s vehicle when he was arrested and officers found more guns at his residence in Highwood, Illinois. All of these guns were legally purchased. Many armchair pontificators are clamoring that the shooter should have been discovered as a serious threat sooner. “He left many signs! Look at his Twitter, his YouTube,” they say. “Why didn’t we do something? How did no one know? Why did he have guns? Why didn’t the background check stop him?”
How does Involuntary mental health commitment work?
This is where the intersection of laws and the field of mental health breakdown. In the State of Illinois, we have the Mental Health and Developmental Disabilities Code (405 ILCS 5/) and there are three conditions for involuntary mental health commitment. They either have to be a threat to themselves (suicidal), others (homicidal) or unable to care for himself. The mental health laws are quite specific and are in place to prevent past abuses of simply locking away individuals against their will for little or no cause, which was, unfortunately, a common occurrence over 60 years ago.
While anyone over the age of 18 can complete a petition for immediate hospitalization for an individual who meets one of these three criteria, a certificate must be filled out as well. This first certificate must be completed by a physician, qualified examiner, or clinical psychologist who has examined the individual. With 24 hours, a petition, and both the first and a new second certificate are filed. Even if the person qualifies for involuntary admittance, it is only for five days unless the physician takes the matter to court for further hospitalization.
Typically, the person is discharged within five days unless the physician is prepared to present the case in front of a judge and a hearing is called. During these five days, they have the right to refuse any and all treatment, including medications. A separate order for involuntary treatment needs to be completed and filed with the courts should those involved feel the individual must be medicated, regardless of their desire to avoid that. Additionally, the courts are extremely resistant to limiting the rights of individuals, especially the mentally ill, so oftentimes the courts release individuals from further commitment. Remember, there is no law that prohibits an individual from being psychotic, delusional, hearing voices, or doing odd things.
Even if a person decides to voluntarily admit themselves to a psychiatric hospital, most psychiatric hospital stays are anywhere from 3-7 days, depending on the insurance of course. Herein lies the next cycle. Once discharged with 30 days of medication, the person needs to follow up with a psychiatrist or a community or county mental health center that may have a 3-6 month waiting list – and this is before the challenges of COVID-19 that reduced staffing and facilities able to offer outpatient care. What do you think happens between the time of discharge and the next appointment? Who will refill the prescription when it runs out in 30 days when the next appointment is not for 2-3 months? Will the person even take the medication between discharge and the next appointment?
What is the shooter's profile?
This brings me to the Highland Park shooter. Those same questions pop up again:
- “Why didn’t we do something?”
- “How did no one know?”
- “Why did he have guns?”
- “Why didn’t the background check stop him?”
We are beginning to see the typical profile emerge of the shooter: White, male, early 20s, unemployed, child of divorced parents, quiet, kept to himself, bothered no one, seemed like a nice guy. Like many young people, he was looking for fame and notoriety on YouTube as an aspiring rapper. He posted violent and ominous videos and songs that no one apparently reported. If they did, nothing sounded an alarm. And of course, the shooter’s uncle has stated to media outlets, “I saw nothing that would trigger him doing this.” He further said that he saw no warning signs in his nephew’s behavior. Of course not. The uncle admitted in the same interview, however, that they lived in separate apartments and the extent of his daily interaction was to say hello and goodbye to the shooter.
In one animated video since taken down by YouTube, the shooter raps about armies “walking in darkness” as a drawing appears of a man pointing a rifle, a body on the ground and another figure with hands up in the distance. A later frame shows a close-up of a chest with blood pouring out and another of police cars arriving as the shooter holds his hands up. He had a video clip of someone – perhaps him? – driving the parade route with audio of an emergency alert signal playing in the background on his YouTube channel for 10 months that was only recently taken down following the shooting.
Did the shooter fall through the cracks?
The quick thought here is that somebody missed something. Ok, I get that. But let’s step back and think about this.
Say some detectives go over to talk to him. He says, “I’m an artist, I’m a rapper, it’s just my creative expression, and I don’t mean anything by it.” That is going to be pretty much the end of the story. Even his family would probably play it down saying he meant nothing by it, that he is always doing something for attention, and that’s “just him.” No red flags for being an artist who is looking to gain attention and expand his online presence. And while disturbing, even if he did get evaluated, he may come off as a loner, as a quirky, odd man, but there would be no grounds to admit him because he denies suicidal and homicidal ideation. He has broken no laws.
Once again, these individuals fall through the cracks because the Illinois Mental Health Code rightfully protects people from overly restrictive treatment, as well as treatment against one's will if you’re not a threat to yourself or others. You can recommend psych services, but he has the freedom to say no. No crime has been committed.
Some would say we need to watch him and monitor him. On what grounds would you be using surveillance on him over the last 10 months? What court would approve of such intrusions of privacy? What red flags would warrant further intervention? And would they be enough?
To date, investigators who have interrogated the suspect and reviewed his social media posts have not determined a motive for the attack. They have also not found any indication that the shooter targeted anyone by race, religion, or other protected status. We have no idea why he did this, so how could we prevent it? Investigators have said that he planned this for weeks. The suspect dressed in women’s clothing at the time of the shooting to conceal his identity and misdirect law enforcement. After the shooting, he blended in with the crowd and walked to his mother’s home in the area where he borrowed her vehicle. A member of the community spotted him driving and called 911. He was found and a short pursuit occurred before he stopped the car and was arrested.
Is the shooter mentally ill?
While everyone wants to say he is mentally ill, what evidence do we have that this is clinically true?
He knew to scale a building via a fire escape, take an optimal shooting position, fire upon an unsuspecting crowd of civilians, leave the rifle, disguise himself in women’s clothing, and blend in with the frightened crowd of the same people he was shooting at. He was also thinking clearly enough to take his mother’s car and have a weapon in it. He apparently knew he could get caught. He had to covertly avoid detection by both law enforcement and the community and attempted to avoid capture. The defense may have their work cut out for them if they attempt an insanity plea.
Would more gun laws have stopped the shooter?
So, could we have stopped this individual with more gun laws? Probably not. Why? Well, in April 2019, the suspect attempted suicide, police were contacted, and the case was turned over to mental health professionals. In September 2019, a family member contacted police after the suspect said he wanted to kill everyone, and police removed several knives, a sword and a dagger. The Illinois State Police (ISP) received a Clear and Present Danger Report in September 2019 in connection to a threat he allegedly made against his family; however, none of the family members were willing to move forward on the complaint. No arrests were made at the time either.
He had a valid Illinois Firearm Owner’s Identification Card (FOID) – which Illinois residents must obtain through the Illinois State Police to legally purchase/possess firearms and ammunition – that cleared the way for him to buy more guns and ammo. He also completed the Federal Form 4473 paperwork and submitted to the background check.
How did he get the FOID card in the first place you ask? His father sponsored him at age 19 in December 2019. At the time, ISP said there was insufficient basis to establish a clear and present danger and deny the application. He was not deemed a threat to himself or others, was not adjudicated mentally ill, he had no court orders for domestic violence, no felonies, and he was approved. Unless someone went to the police, like a friend or family member, no one would be the wiser to his actions or how many guns he was buying, and in this case, his father sponsored him for his FOID card! Even his YouTube and social media posts, while disturbing, would not get more than an interview from a detective and the suspect and his family could easily play them down as stated previously.
How likely would anyone make the connection, three years later, that this individual might be a concern? We also live in a society that is situationally unaware and politically correct so we are less likely to call out any individual, regardless of their troubling behavior, statements or characteristics, for fear of shaming or discrimination.
How can we stop active shooter events?
We cannot give up, though. We need to be proactive and start looking at these cases more closely and learn from them. We must not be afraid to call out and rightfully question things that are going beyond “artistic license” or simply looking for social media attention. We need to start seeing the pattern here and start educating families better.
The Lake County, Illinois branch of the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) states that the link between violent crime and mental health is quite low. Research is continuing to show that only 4% of violent crimes are committed by someone with a mental illness, yet we have as many as one in four adults experiencing a mental health concern in any given year. If, and more than likely we will, remove the mental illness component from the equation, we simply may have an angry, misguided individual. How many more like that are out there? These individuals are being created through a series of societal and political failures.
When a mayor from a major U.S. city uses vulgarities against a sitting president and an acting Supreme Court Justice, what message are we sending to society and to our young people…like this shooter? Countless celebrities and politicians are guilty of using vulgarities in a poor attempt to stir controversy, attention and action. When we lose respect for one another are we surprised when these events occur? Have we not fostered, promoted and stoked the fires of division spreading across our country through these actions modeled by those in power? Are we not somehow empowering or acutely agitating individuals like the shooter from Highland Park by divisive, one-sided, all-or-nothing thinking?
There are no easy answers here. All of this is incredibly complex and multi-dimensional. Understandably, many are trying to find a simple, singularly effective solution to a terrifying problem. Unfortunately, that’s not how this works. Protecting our communities from threats like the one we saw come into clear, bloody focus this holiday weekend takes intense effort, rational behavior and logical thinking. We need to ask hard questions and be willing to accept the fact that there may not be – likely isn’t – a “perfect” answer. We must consider all options, realistically project the results and ramifications of our decisions and avoid falling prey to agenda-driven rhetoric or frenetic clamoring that drives people to ill-conceived, ineffective actions.
Some say that in times of crisis, doing something is better than doing nothing, but what they’re really saying is doing anything. We must do better than that. If we step away from the divisiveness and are willing to meet in the middle to begin communicating intelligently, compromising as necessary and unifying, we will.