Because he said three stupid, deliberately offensive things about mass shootings on Reddit, Chris Velasquez became an early target of a new Florida law authorizing "risk protection orders" (RPOs) that bar people from buying or possessing guns. Last month, based on a police affidavit that falsely portrayed Velasquez as a ticking time bomb who had threatened to attack schools, a judge issued a temporary RPO against him. Yesterday, after taking a closer look at the evidence, the same judge declined to extend the RPO for a year.
That reversal shows how easily laws like Florida's can be abused and how much discretion they give judges to suspend people's Second Amendment rights. The case should give pause to conservatives (such as National Review's David French) who see so-called gun violence restraining orders as an appealing alternative to broader restrictions on firearms.
Velasquez, a 21-year-old student at the University of Central Florida (UCF) in Orlando who went by the Reddit handle TheRealUCFChris, attracted police attention with three comments he posted in February. In a thread titled "You guys are too weak to be a school shooter," he replied, "Maybe for now but not forever." Later he posted the comment "RIP Paddock my hero" in a thread about the autopsy of Las Vegas mass shooter Stephen Paddock and wrote "Cruz is a hero!" in reference to Nicholas Cruz, the perpetrator of the February 14 attack on a high school in Parkland, Florida. Several Reddit users contacted the UCF Police Department, which is how Velasquez ended up sitting down for an interview with Officer Jeffrey Panter on March 5.
Asked to explain his comments, Velasquez recalled that he was "in a pretty angry place" but said he was just "trolling" and "wanted to see how fast Reddit would act or if they would act at all against a comment like that." (Reddit did in fact suspend Velasquez because of his comments.) "I regret making those comments 100 percent," Velasquez told Panter. "I'm not a violent person….I would never, ever, act out in violence against anybody in a mass shooting or anything of the sort."
Panter refused to accept Velasquez's explanation or his assurances, and over the course of the interview he pressured, cajoled, and manipulated him into agreeing with statements that made it seem like Velasquez genuinely admired Paddock and Cruz, that he identified with Cruz because both of them had been bullied as kids, and that he had repeatedly fantasized about returning to his former middle school or high school in Orlando and shooting it up. These exchanges give you a sense of Panter's method:
Panter: At that particular time, at that instant, you were kind of thinking like…it would make me feel better if I went and did something like that. And it's OK if you did. It's just thoughts, right? It's OK. Nothing wrong with that, right? You didn't do it, right?
Velasquez: Of course.
Panter: Why do you think the thoughts were in your mind that you were thinking about doing a mass shooting or being a school shooter?
Velasquez: I thought about the rush that must go through the shooter's head as they're, you know, rampaging through the school, knowing that they, no matter what happens then, they will be remembered. People will know their name for at least maybe two to three weeks of media coverage. And I thought to myself, you know, I'm too much of a coward to ever do anything like that. But I wanted to make myself look like a badass on Reddit, so…that's why I typed the "not forever."
Panter: Call of Duty…is something [where] you can virtually imagine yourself going through and right, shooting people, killing people.
Velasquez: Mm hm.
Panter: Which is kind of where your mindset was at least for that moment when you wrote this comment, correct?
Velasquez: Mm hm.
Panter: With Nicholas Cruz you can kind of see yourself in him, correct?
Velasquez: A little bit. Yeah. I mean, I don't know anything about his story, but from maybe the bullying aspect, sure.
Panter: When you think about stuff like that, what are the means that you would carry something out if you were to do it?
Velasquez: Probably automatic rifle, I guess. I never really thought about it too much, what I would do. But that's just the first thing that pops into my head.
Panter: What would it take for you to go and grab that gun and go to your old school or go to the high school and get some payback? I mean, what would it take for you to get to that point?
Velasquez: Maybe something bad happens to me, something terrible. Maybe being attacked on the street or something or maybe one day I get a girlfriend and the relationship goes bad. I don't know if I can see that happening, but yeah, just something pretty—I don't think I'm going to be sent over the edge very easily. But maybe getting fired from a high-paying job?
When you read the transcript of the interview, you do not get the impression that Velasquez has ever seriously contemplated committing a crime of this sort, let alone made any plans or taken any steps in that direction. He calls the Parkland massacre "a senseless tragedy" and notes that a mass shooter may get his "15 minutes of fame" but will "eventually be remembered as a piece of crap." He says he has fired a gun, his father's revolver, just once in his life and was indifferent to the experience.
"He's never owned a weapon, never tried to buy one," says Kendra Parris, Velasquez's lawyer. "He didn't have any intent or plans. He's got no history of violence, no interactions with law enforcement before. He didn't have any disciplinary issues in school. He's really kind of this quiet, shy, mellow kid." Panter apparently agreed. "You're an awesome dude," he tells Velasquez toward the end of the interview. "You're a nice guy."
Panter nevertheless forced Velasquez to undergo a psychiatric assessment, as authorized by the Florida Mental Health Act (a.k.a. the Baker Act) when police have "reason to believe" someone has a mental illness that makes him dangerous to himself or others. The psychiatrist concluded that Velasquez did not meet the criteria for involuntary treatment, which would have required showing by "clear and convincing evidence" that, because of mental illness, there was a "substantial likelihood" that he would "inflict serious bodily harm" on himself or others "in the near future," based on "recent behavior causing, attempting, or threatening such harm."
The criteria for an RPO, laid out in legislation enacted in response to the Parkland massacre, are considerably looser. A "law enforcement officer or law enforcement agency" can obtain a temporary order, lasting up to two weeks, by saying there is "reasonable cause to believe" the target "poses a significant danger of causing personal injury" to himself or others "in the near future" if he is allowed to possess firearms. At this stage, the "respondent" has no opportunity to respond, and the claims about him receive no real scrutiny.
Because Velasquez's former middle school and high school, the imaginary targets of his hypothetical attack, are located in Orlando, the UCF cops referred the case to that city's police department. In a March 16 application for a temporary RPO, Orlando police Sgt. Matthew Ochiuzzo twisted Velasquez's online comments and his interview with Panter into a portrait of a deeply troubled man who was just one disappointment away from committing mass murder.
On the list of 15 possible grounds for issuing an RPO, Ochiuzzo checked five, including "there is evidence that the respondent is seriously mentally ill," "respondent has committed a recent act or threat of violence," and "the respondent has used or threatened to use any weapons against him or herself or others." None of that was true.
Ochiuzzo's affidavit included several more-specific misrepresentations.
"The respondent disclosed that he has had thoughts and urges to commit a mass shooting since his sophomore year of high school in 2014," Ochiouzzo wrote. Velasquez never said that. To the contrary, when Panter asked about his state of mind in high school, he said, "I didn't have any thoughts of school shooting."
"The respondent stated that he would use an AR-15 style semiautomatic rifle to commit those mass shootings," Ochiuzzo wrote. Velasquez never mentioned such a weapon.
"The respondent indicated that he wanted to commit the mass shootings so that he could feel the 'andrenaline rush' from the shooting," Ochiuzzo wrote. To the contrary, Velasquez repeatedly said he would never commit such a crime.
Based on an affidavit that was highly misleading and in some respects blatantly inaccurate, Circuit Judge Bob LeBlanc issued a temporary RPO on March 16, ordering Velasquez to surrender all firearms in his possession and refrain from acquiring any new ones. Velasquez never owned any guns, and at this point his father had already voluntarily surrendered his revolver to the UCF police, who had searched Velasquez's phones, laptop, backpack, car, and bedroom, all with consent and all without discovering any evidence of homicidal intent.
Yesterday, a month after his interview with Panter, Velasquez finally got a hearing. (It was originally set for March 29 but was rescheduled because LeBlanc was ill.) Parris says LeBlanc realized that the threat described by Ochiuzzo was never more than theoretical. "The judge asked, 'Did he actually make any threats, or was this all in response to hypothetical questions?'" she says. "And of course, it was all in response to hypothetical questions. Fortunately, the judge noted that this essentially amounted to thought policing and declined to issue the order." In his order denying the RPO petition, LeBlanc said the city "did not meet its burden to prove by clear and convincing evidence that Respondent poses a 'significant danger.'"
Although that decision may look like a victory for due process, Parris notes that LeBlanc could have reached a different conclusion, since the RPO law says judges "may consider any relevant evidence." The law gives 15 examples but says the list is not exhaustive. "The 'clear and convincing evidence' standard is meaningless, because the criteria are open-ended," Parris says. "The court literally can look at anything. It's not constrained by the 15 criteria." Furthermore, the RPO law leaves undefined crucial terms such as "significant danger" and "serious mental illness." Parris argues that the law is unconstitutionally vague and overbroad because it gives courts "unfettered discretion" and "no real guidance."
Although Velasquez's Second Amendment rights have been restored, he has been barred from campus pending the outcome of another psychiatric evaluation, and he is carrying the burden of the publicity attracted by the case. "My client was tried, convicted, and crucified by the media before we could set the record straight," Parris says. In the wake of the Parkland massacre, she says, "Everybody is extraordinarily hypersensitive and emotional, and there was no room or time for nuance and context, evaluating the facts. Many of the media reports repeated some of the false allegations that were made in the petition. He's not even feeling safe walking outside right now. He might eventually need to change his name."