Red flags didn’t stop the Waffle House shooting

May 6, 2018 GMT

The vast majority of Americans, including ardent Second Amendment defenders, agree that people with serious mental illness shouldn’t have access to a firearm.

And yet it keeps happening with regularity and the most tragic consequences.

In a Waffle House outside Nashville last month, a deeply disturbed man with an assault-style rifle randomly killed four people — three men and a woman, all in their 20s. The victims were a musician, a student in social work, a cook saving money to start a family, and a 20-year-old home appliance installer who had just texted his mother about how much he loved her.

The accused gunman, 29-year-old Travis Reinking, had a long and open history of aberrant behavior and even lost his legal right to own a firearm last August after an incident outside the White House.

In two years leading up to the shooting, Reinking had threatened suicide, menaced an employee of his father’s crane company with his AR-15, complained to police about singer-songwriter Taylor Swift hacking his phone, and dived into a public pool wearing a pink woman’s housecoat.


Flags don’t get much redder than that. So what loophole allowed him to take up deadly force? After the White House incident, when Reinking had to surrender his gun owner’s license to sheriff’s deputies in Illinois, where he lived at the time, his four guns — including the AR-15 — simply went to his father, Jeffrey, who held the necessary license.

“We had no legal justification to seize the weapons,” Tazewell County Sheriff’s Chief Deputy Jeffrey Lower said. “We cannot seize property without a warrant or a crime being committed.”

Instead, deputies warned the father to keep guns away from his son. That didn’t happen.

The overwhelming majority of people with mental illness are not violent. But Reinking joined America’s growing ranks of those clearly known to be emotionally unstable and threatening, and who still manage to arm themselves and commit slaughter.

They include Seung Hui Cho, who killed 32 at Virginia Tech in 2007; Jared Loughner, who shot Rep. Gabby Giffords and 18 others in 2011; Aaron Alexis, who gunned down 12 at the Washington Navy Yard in 2013; Esteban Santiago, who left five dead at the Fort Lauderdale Airport last year; and high school shooter Nikolas Cruz, who ended 17 lives on Valentine’s Day in Parkland, Fla.

Federal gun laws disqualify the mentally ill from owning firearms only if they have been involuntarily committed by a court — a high bar that fails to cover many of the deranged and dangerous. An Obama-era regulation, adding mental-health information for a relatively small number of people to the national gun background check system, was reversed in a bill signed by President Donald Trump last year.


The good news is that “red flag” laws are cropping up across the country. These allow law enforcement to obtain a court order for seizing firearms from a person whose mental condition renders them a clear menace.

Six states (California, Florida, Maryland, Oregon, Vermont and Washington) have them, and 20 more have them under consideration, including Illinois. Given Reinking’s tragic circumstances, these laws need to require that seized guns be kept by law enforcement or a federally licensed firearms dealer, and not merely turned over to a relative who might give them back to their troubled loved one.