SUNRISE, Fla. (AP) — Florida’s gun and mental health laws likely could not have prevented school shooting suspect Nikolas Cruz from buying the semi-automatic rifle authorities say he used to kill 17 people — even if the laws had applied to him, the state commission investigating the shooting learned Thursday.
Robin Sparkman, chief of the state’s Firearm Eligibility Bureau, told the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Commission that even if Cruz had been subjected to an involuntary, three-day mental health evaluation under a state law called the Baker Act, he still could have bought the AR-15 allegedly used in the Feb. 14 massacre.
The only way the 19-year-old Cruz would have been ineligible to buy a gun was if he had been declared mentally ill by a judge or convicted of a felony. Cruz was never committed under the Baker Act, convicted of a crime or judged to be mentally ill.
“So many people think the Baker Act is a magic wand — that the Baker Act cures and fixes all. The Baker Act doesn’t,” said Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri, the commission’s chairman. “The Baker Act is a temporary custody status for assessment. Rarely does the Baker Act result in any treatment. People think that if Cruz had been Baker Acted that this wouldn’t have happened. That is flat-out erroneous.”
Under the Baker Act, Florida can involuntarily commit a person for a mental health evaluation for up to 72 hours — about 192,000 such commitments were made last year, about one for every 100 Florida residents.
It can be implemented if a police officer, judge, doctor or mental health official believes the person is mentally ill and is a near-term danger to themselves or others. Many are released within hours and anyone detained under the act must be released within three days unless they volunteer for treatment or a judge agrees the person needs to be committed. Less than 1 percent are transferred to long-term commitment.
Circuit Judge Steve Leifman, who helped create a mental health program in Miami-Dade County, told the commission that’s because the state is “cheap,” not because a higher percentage shouldn’t be hospitalized.
Being evaluated under the Baker Act or volunteering for commitment does not make a person ineligible to buy or own a gun. School and law enforcement officials considered detaining Cruz under the Baker Act in 2016, but did not.
School and government records obtained by The Associated Press and other news media shortly after the shooting show Cruz was diagnosed as developmentally delayed at age 3 and had disciplinary issues dating to middle school. In February 2014, while in eighth grade, Cruz was transferred to a school for children with emotional and behavioral issues. He stayed until 10th grade, when he was transferred to Marjory Stoneman Douglas High. He also received mental health counseling for years, but refused treatment after he turned 18.
About a year before the attack, Cruz was kicked out of the school after he harassed other students, had outbursts, fought and had numerous other issues. His mother called deputies about 20 times, including accusations of battery on her, but he was never arrested.
Cruz’s brother says he pointed a rifle at him and their mother, but they never called police for that. Their mother died in November of pneumonia. Their father died when they were young.
Gualtieri said after Cruz turned 18 in September 2016, he needed a state identification card to buy a gun. His mother, Lynda Cruz, helped him obtain the ID, even though counselors told her he should not be allowed to own a gun, Gualtieri said. He purchased the AR-15 in February 2017.
Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd, a commission member, said Florida law enforcement, educators and other officials get frustrated because people repeatedly get placed into the mental health system, but never get the treatment they need and eventually commit a crime.
Three weeks after the massacre, Florida changed its gun laws, implementing a system under which police departments and sheriff’s offices can petition a judge to block a person with suspected mental illnesses from owning weapons for up to a year and then apply for extensions. It also increased the age limit for buying rifles and shotguns from 18 to 21 under most circumstances.
The commission, which includes law enforcement, educators, a legislator, parents of slain students and others, is examining the massacre’s causes and by the end of the year will make recommendations to prevent future school shootings.
Cruz is charged with 17 counts of first-degree murder.
By TERRY SPENCER
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