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Why The Waffle House Shooting Suspect Had Access To Guns After His Were Seized


What many people are asking about in this case is why the suspect was allowed to even have guns, given the fact that he'd shown signs of mental instability and threatening behavior, including an incident last summer on the grounds of the White House. NPR's law enforcement correspondent Martin Kaste joins us now to talk about what options police have to remove guns from someone like this. Hi, Martin.


CHANG: OK, the way I understand it, it seems the suspect in this case did lose his guns, at least temporarily. Can you tell us what happened?

KASTE: Well, yes. He's been showing some signs of mental instability. There was an incident last summer, kind of a bizarre behavior involving a swimming pool and he exposed himself and he had a rifle with him. After that, the local law enforcement went to his father, who apparently told them he would lock up his sons guns, at least while he was trying to get some help or something like that. But then a month later, we had this incident at the White House kind of on the security perimeter there where he breached that perimeter.

And after that, the feds apparently went to Illinois law enforcement and encouraged them to take his guns away, if possible. What they did is they canceled his gun card that's required in Illinois. But it was unclear, really, what the legal grounds for taking those guns away might be. And so what happened there is his father volunteered to take the guns into safekeeping. And the deputies who were there to take those guns agreed to do that. But apparently after that at some point, Reinking did get his hands on those guns again.

CHANG: So Travis Reinking's behavior had been strange and threatening. Why wouldn't there have been legal basis to take away his guns in that case?

KASTE: Well, because of his constitutional legal rights to own those guns. Police generally have very few options in these cases to take away someone's property like that. There really has to be an outright threat of violence or actual violence. And we saw that with the case of the accused shooter in Parkland. There had been lots of visits by police, concerns about his mental health. But there was little they could do about taking away his guns, which were legal. And that's why there's been this push now recently for what's called generically red flag laws that go by different names, gun violence restraining order, that kind of thing.

And what these new laws that are being proposed do is create a mechanism that the police can use. They can go to a court to get a prevention order - it's kind of like in domestic violence cases - to temporarily take guns away with some legal backing.

CHANG: How common are those laws across the United States?

KASTE: Well, they're not that common yet. There's a handful of states that have them. But after Parkland, we saw a real big, new push, especially by gun control groups, to promote these laws. About 20 states roughly had been considering them, including Illinois and Tennessee. But so far, those two states did not actually have red flag laws on the books yet when all this happened.

CHANG: And is there a push back from gun rights groups on having more of these laws on the books?

KASTE: Well, yes and no. The NRA recently announced that officially it is supportive of the idea of red flag laws, in principle, because this actually supports the NRA's take on things that mass shootings are mainly a mental health problem and not a gun problem. But in practice, the NRA has not been supporting the laws as they've been proposed because they require a kind of a long list of conditions to make sure those laws are constitutional in their view, that they don't infringe too much on people's rights to own guns.

For example, they say they'll only support a law like this if the same standards for committing someone involuntarily to mental health treatment, if those same standards are applied to take away someone's guns.

CHANG: Wow, that's a really high bar.

KASTE: It's a very high bar. It's hard to commit someone involuntarily. And so, you know, the people promoting these laws say, well, with a bar that high, you're really not supporting this at all. And in fact, in a lot of states, the NRA has opposed versions of this law.

CHANG: What about the fact that the father had said he would take care of the guns but then the son got the guns back anyway? Could the father be criminally liable in any way?

KASTE: It's not really clear yet under Illinois law how that would work. It could have been a legal transfer, despite the lack of a gun card. And the fact is actually in a lot of these cases in states that do have red flag laws, the police often take advantage of family members who are volunteering to take possession of the guns for safekeeping. This is actually often a very useful compromise because the person losing the guns is less likely to fight it.

And if the family member is serious about keeping them out of that person's hands, it's a good compromise. And it's easier for the police than taking it into official custody.

CHANG: All right. That's NPR's Martin Kaste. Thank you very much.

KASTE: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Martin Kaste is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk. He covers law enforcement and privacy. He has been focused on police and use of force since before the 2014 protests in Ferguson, and that coverage led to the creation of NPR's Criminal Justice Collaborative.
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