In Indianapolis Shooting, a Red Flag That Never Flew

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INDIANAPOLIS — They are the rare gun laws that attract bipartisan agreement — so-called red flag laws, which allow the authorities to temporarily take away guns from people declared by a judge to be too unstable to have them.

The case of Brandon Hole appeared, at first, to be exactly the kind of situation these laws were designed to address. Indeed, last March, when Mr. Hole’s mother raised alarms about his mental state, the police seized a shotgun from his home. It was never returned.

But a year later, the police say, Mr. Hole, 19, shot and killed eight people at a FedEx facility before killing himself, using rifles he had legally purchased not long after that incident in March 2020.

While many details are still unclear, Mr. Hole’s case is a sobering example of how even states with widely supported safeguards can fail to prevent dangerous people from obtaining firearms. The laws, experts say, are often used only as short-term solutions. In the days after the shooting, local officials have struggled to explain how a man who was deemed by law enforcement as too unstable to possess a weapon could go on to legally buy one months later.

“Any law is only as good as the people that are enforcing it,” said Brad Banks, a former prosecutor in Marion County, which includes Indianapolis, who is now in private practice. “Does it make sense we took away the gun because he’s too dangerous to have one, but we didn’t take the step to prevent him from going out and buying one the next day?

Red flag laws are in place in more than a dozen states, including Florida and New York. Their conditions vary widely; in California, for example, family members can directly petition to have firearms temporarily seized from their loved ones. But in Indiana, only law enforcement can initiate that process in court.

Named for Timothy Laird, a police officer who was shot in the line of duty in 2004, the Indiana law is one of the oldest of its kind in the country. It passed in the Republican-held state legislature by an almost unanimous vote in 2005.

The law has been particularly effective in reducing suicides. A study from Indiana University showed a 7.5 percent decrease in firearm-related suicides in the decade after the law’s passage. In Indianapolis alone, more than 400 people were subject to it from 2006 to 2013, the study said.

Under the statute, a person is considered dangerous if he “presents an imminent risk” to himself or others, or if he fits certain other criteria, including a documented propensity for violence.

In March 2020, Mr. Hole’s mother approached officers at a Police Department roll call and told them she believed that her son was having suicidal thoughts and might even try to commit “suicide by cop,” the chief of the Indianapolis Metropolitan Police, Randal Taylor, said on Sunday.

Jimmy Clark, 79, a retired auto service worker who lives across the street, remembered the situation. “He wanted the cops to kill him,” said Mr. Clark, adding that Mr. Hole was an angry young man who always seemed to be “mad at the world.”

When the police arrived at the house, Mr. Hole’s mother “asked him to come down,” the chief said. “When he does, they’d already felt they had enough information to do the needed detention.”

Mr. Hole, who was 18 at the time, was taken to a hospital on a “mental health temporary hold,” according to Paul Keenan, the special agent in charge of the F.B.I.’s Indianapolis office.

Having been told about a shotgun that Mr. Hole had recently purchased, an officer at the house went upstairs to take it, the chief said, and saw on the young man’s computer “some stuff about some white supremacy ideations and those kind of things.” Federal investigators would interview Mr. Hole about those discoveries the next month, though they would conclude that he did not harbor an ideology of “racially motivated violent extremism.”

The main concern at the time of the police visit, the chief said, was Mr. Hole’s comments “about killing himself or possibly even allowing us to kill him.” And so the officers took the shotgun. It was never returned.

The seizure of weapons under red flag laws is often temporary. In Indiana, once a weapon is taken by the police, prosecutors have 14 days to justify the seizure to a judge. If such a determination is not made, the firearms are immediately returned. But if the judge decides the person in question is so unstable that he or she should not be permitted to have guns, the police hold onto the seized weapons, and the person is barred from possessing any guns for at least six months.

The permanent seizure of Mr. Hole’s shotgun would therefore suggest that prosecutors had sought and obtained a red flag determination. But this apparently did not happen. “For whatever reason,” Chief Taylor said, “that never made it to the court.”

Chief Taylor said it was not the police’s role to make the decision of whether to bring the case to court for a red flag hearing. The prosecutors’ office “would get a notification,” he said, that police had taken a weapon and that the owner of it had been expressing suicidal thoughts. It would be then up to that office to act, he said. “In reality, he may have qualified, but that is for the prosecutors” to determine, Chief Taylor said.

Ryan Mears, the Marion County prosecutor, said in an interview at a vigil on Saturday that he did not know what had happened in this case. But he suggested, posing a hypothetical, that the authorities might have taken the gun in response to pleas from concerned family members, and considered the crisis resolved.

“What could have occurred,” Mr. Mears said, “is the point was: ‘Let’s get the gun out of there, make sure the gun is not returned,’ if that was the agreement that was made. And I’m not saying that it is the case. But there’s no reason to go in front of the judge at that point in time, because the point is we want to take the weapon away.”

Experts note that most red flag laws are primarily built to address short-term, imminent crises, said Aaron J. Kivisto, a psychology professor at Indiana University who wrote the study on the state’s statute.

“Most suicides are fairly impulsive acts, he said. “And if the person can get through the short term crisis, the suicide doesn’t occur, or the homicide doesn’t occur.”

Still, this would not explain how the authorities legally held on to the shotgun after the 14 days. But the chief said Mr. Hole called at one point and said that “he didn’t want the weapons back.”

“It’s not uncommon,” the chief said. “People realize, you know, ‘Maybe I shouldn’t have it.’ They just say, ‘Let it go.’ But I don’t know what his motivation was.”

In any case, without a red flag restriction, Mr. Hole would go on to buy two powerful firearms within the next six or seven months.

For those who have studied the evolution of red flag laws, Mr. Hole may turn out to be a tragic example of their shortcomings. In practice, experts say containing more chronic threats like Mr. Hole might be beyond the laws’ reaches, in their current forms.

“Maybe it prevented something for a year, or six months,” Mr. Kivisto said. “And then it wasn’t enough.”

Robert Chiarito, Alison Saldanha and Brandon Dupré contributed reporting from Indianapolis.

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