HIGHLAND PARK, Ill. — On Monday morning, Illinois state Sen. Julie Morrison sat in the back of a convertible, waving to Fourth of July revelers as her grandchildren walked alongside the car. Mrs. Morrison, a Democrat, has made fighting gun violence a priority in her legislative career and was the lead sponsor of the state’s “red flag” law, which created a system in which guns could be confiscated from someone who found it dangerous.
Then gunfire broke out.
Ms Morrison found herself running for safety and later questioned how a mass shooting could happen in a place with some of the strictest gun laws in the country. “Are there any loopholes?” Ms Morrison asked on Wednesday. “Unfortunately, we now have an opportunity to look into it.”
The shooting suspect, 21-year-old Robert E. Crimo III, had drawn the attention of police more than once and, despite warnings about his disturbing behavior, had obtained a firearms license and purchased several handguns.
How a young man who sent alarming signals ended up with a semi-automatic rifle in Illinois is a question that haunts more than just survivors of Monday’s deadly massacre in the Chicago suburb of Highland Park. It’s also an issue of federal importance, coming just days after President Biden signed the most significant gun legislation passed in decades.
As details of Mr. Crimo’s past continued to emerge, and as a judge on Wednesday ordered him held without bail on murder charges, it remained unclear whether the horrific episode exposed weaknesses in the state’s gun restrictions or within the boundaries of even powerful guarantees in a system that ultimately relies on the judgments of people – authorities, families, observers.
Ms Morrison acknowledged that the effectiveness of certain gun laws was often limited by how people responded to them, including whether people informed authorities about friends or family members who were exhibiting troubling behaviour. “I don’t know how far we can legislate human response; we can only provide the tools,” she said.
“It’s personal,” she said. “I’m angry. And that has to change.”
In an initial court appearance Wednesday, where Mr. Crimo appeared by video, Ben Dillon, the prosecutor, described in the fullest detail how officials say the attack unfolded on Monday.
Mr Dillon said Mr Crimo used a fire escape to climb onto a roof in the city center during the holiday parade. There, Mr. Dillon said, he opened fire — emptying a 30-round magazine, firing another, then loading a third magazine. Officials found 83 shell casings, Mr Dillon said.
Hours after the shooting that left seven dead, authorities were searching for a suspect. Deputy Christopher Covelli of the Lake County Sheriff’s Office said investigators believe he fled to Madison, Wisconsin, after the attack but then returned to Illinois, where he was arrested. Chief Covelli said the police believed Mr. Crimo saw a party in Madison and considered using a second rifle he had with him in the car to carry out another shooting there, but decided against it.
At a news conference with the Illinois State Police on Wednesday, officials defended the way they handled Mr. Crimo’s application for a gun license and released records showing he told Highland Park officers in 2019. , that he was depressed and used drugs.
Under Illinois law, there are several options for authorities to intervene if a gun owner is deemed to be a dangerous risk. This begins with the application process for a gun license, known in Illinois as a Firearm Owner’s Identification Card.
The application includes a long list of questions about past felony convictions, failed drug tests, or recent hospitalizations for mental illness. It is submitted to the State Police, where it goes through dozens of steps, including electronic and manual checks of national and state databases. At any point in this process, the state may determine that an individual is ineligible. However, the vast majority approved; according to a 2021 report by the Illinois Auditor General, less than 4 percent of nearly 600,000 applications were denied in 2018 and 2019.
Brendan Kelly, director of the Illinois State Police, said on Wednesday that he believed his agency acted properly in handling the information about Mr. Crimo. He had no information that would have allowed the agency to deny him a gun license, Mr. Kelly said.
The law governing the licenses authorizes local authorities such as the police or school officials to file a report with the Illinois State Police stating that a person may pose a “clear and present danger.” The state police can then decide whether the report meets the burden of revoking that person’s card.
Highland Park police filed a “clear and present danger” report on Mr Crimo in September 2019 after seizing 16 knives, a dagger and a sword from his home while responding to reports he had been making threats. According to state police, his father told officers he owned the knives and they were all returned the same day. For the second time this year, police responded to reports of Mr Crimo’s behaviour; the first includes a report of a suicide attempt.
But Mr. Kelly, the state police director, said the Highland Park report did not clear the legal threshold for determining that Mr. Crimo, who denied to officers that he wanted to hurt himself or others, was clear and present danger.
Mr Kelly said how well gun laws work depends not only on law enforcement, but also on the vigilance and follow-up of family members and friends.
“It’s so dependent on the people who may be closest to the person of concern, the person who may pose a threat to themselves or the person who may pose a threat to others,” Mr Kelly said .
Under the rules in effect at the time, Mr. Kelly said, the state still would not have had a copy of that report from the Highland Park police when Mr. Crimo asked for a firearms owner’s identification card three months later with his father’s sponsorship. He had no disqualifying convictions, no restraining orders, no psychiatric clearances, no “clear and present danger” designations when he applied for a gun permit. He was approved.
By the end of 2020, he had bought several guns, including the Smith & Wesson semi-automatic rifle that police say was used in Monday’s attack and another rifle found in his car when he was arrested.
Officials have not said what they believe may have motivated the attack, but said they had no reason to believe it was motivated by racial or religious hatred.
Some in Highland Park’s large Jewish community said they recognized the accused. Martin Blumenthal, who is in charge of security at the Lubavitch Chabad synagogue in the city’s northern suburbs, said he summoned the man from this year’s Passover service.
Finding his appearance suspicious, Mr. Blumenthal said he secretly knelt down at one point during the service and reached under the man’s seat to pat his small backpack. It did not appear to contain any weapons, Mr. Blumenthal said.
He said he was now convinced the man had gone to the synagogue to survey it as a potential target. “He was definitely considering the place,” Mr. Blumenthal said.
Prosecutors declined to say Wednesday whether they were considering filing charges against family members of the suspect. Steven Greenberg, an attorney representing the father, acknowledged that his client had sponsored his son’s gun license application, but said the father did not believe there was a problem and may not have fully understood what happened during the police interview. visit in 2019 when officers seized knives from his son.
Filing a “clear and present danger” report wasn’t the only time in the past three years when a suspect’s intent to buy and carry a gun could be thwarted.
In 2019, the state’s Firearms Restraining Order Act, legislation sponsored by Ms. Morrison and often referred to as a red flag law, went into effect, allowing police to confiscate firearms if a judge determines that the owner of weapons “poses an immediate and present danger of bodily harm to himself, herself, or another.” Speak for Safety Illinois, an advocacy group, found that only 53 warrants for the seizure of firearms were filed in the first two years of the law, nearly half of them in one district in the Chicago suburbs.
There is no indication that a firearms restraining order was sought in Mr. Crimo’s case, despite his disturbing behavior. This represents one of the hard realities of public safety law: Red flag laws only come into effect when someone who is close to a potentially dangerous gun owner requests a warrant.
“This was a textbook case of a red flag law that wasn’t used,” said John Feinblatt, president of Everytown for Gun Safety, which has called for more restrictive gun laws. “The tool to cite a red flag law existed and no one took it out of the box.”
Reporting contributed by Robert Chiarito, Adam Goldman, Michael Levenson, Glen Thrush and Luke Vander Ploeg.