According to the Anne Arundel County Police Department, the 61-year-old man, who at that hour presumably had just been awakened by the officers’ knocking, answered the door with a gun in his hand. He put it down when he saw who was there. Upon learning that the two officers had come to serve him with an “extreme risk protective order” (ERPO) that barred him from possessing firearms, police said, Willis became “irate” and picked up the weapon again. As one officer tried to wrestle the gun away from Willis, it went off, whereupon the other officer shot him.
Police Chief Timothy Altomare subsequently argued that the incident illustrated the need for Maryland’s ERPO law, which had taken effect barely a month before. “If you look at this morning’s outcome,” he told the Annapolis Capital, a newspaper whose headquarters had been the site of a mass shooting the previous June, “it’s tough for us to say ‘Well, what did we prevent?’ Because we don’t know what we prevented or could’ve prevented. What would’ve happened if we didn’t go there at 5 a.m.?”
Altomare invites us to speculate that Willis might have used a gun to kill someone. Yet at the time of his death, the only evidence to support that concern seems to have been a complaint from his sister, who reportedly obtained the temporary ERPO against her brother after a family argument during which he said something that alarmed her. Willis had no opportunity to challenge that claim, and he had no idea he had been stripped of his Second Amendment rights until police arrived at his door early in the morning with the court order in hand.
Anne Arundel County police did not respond to my inquiries, and the Maryland courts have declined to provide records of the case, which are confidential under state law unless a judge rules otherwise. Based on interviews with relatives, local news outlets reported that the ERPO stemmed from an argument the day before about the care of Willis’ elderly mother. According to WBFF, the local Fox station, “Gary Willis struggle[d] with alcoholism” but “family say he wasn’t dangerous, just strongly opinionated.”
Michele Willis, Gary’s niece, gave a similar account in an interview with The Baltimore Sun, saying her uncle “likes to speak his mind” but “wouldn’t hurt anybody.” She added that his fatal encounter with the police seemed senseless. “I’m just dumbfounded now,” she said. “They didn’t need to do what they did.”
Maryland is one of 17 states with so-called red flag laws, most of which were enacted following the February 2018 massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. After the mass shootings in El Paso and Dayton in August, President Donald Trump endorsed red flag laws as a way of preventing such crimes by disarming would-be mass murderers. But judging from the available data, the court orders authorized by such laws are usually aimed at preventing suicide rather than homicide. The evidence on whether they succeed in doing that is mixed. So far there is no solid evidence that they prevent homicides, even though the oldest red flag law was enacted two decades ago.
One thing is certain: Taking away people’s guns based on predictions of what they might do with them raises thorny due process concerns. That’s especially true with laws like Maryland’s, which authorize broad categories of people to seek ERPOs based on scant evidence and effectively put the burden on gun owners to demonstrate that they don’t pose a threat to themselves or others. While the benefits of these laws are mostly speculative, they inevitably deprive law-abiding people of the constitutional right to armed self-defense, even when it is quite unlikely that they would use guns to hurt themselves or anyone else.
Posted by The non-Conformist