Mass Shootings

Gun Controllers Blame Congress for the Annapolis Shooting. But Why?

What piece of legislation could have prevented yesterday's attack?


Christopher Brown / Polaris / Newscom

Gabrielle Giffords, founder of the eponymous gun control group Giffords, blames Congress for the shooting that killed five people at a newspaper in Annapolis, Maryland, yesterday. But it's not clear what Congress should or could have done to prevent the shotgun attack on the Capital Gazette by a man with a longstanding grudge against the paper.

"Reporters shouldn't have to hide from gunfire while doing their jobs," says Giffords, a former U.S. representative who was gravely injured in a 2011 shooting that left six people dead in Tucson. "A summer intern in the newsroom shouldn't have to tweet for help. We shouldn't have to live in a country where our lawmakers refuse to take any action to address this uniquely American crisis that's causing so much horror and heartbreak on what feels like a daily basis." But Giffords' indictment of her former colleagues does not identify any legislation they could have enacted that would have made a difference for the victims of yesterday's attack:

Time and time again, those representing us in Congress have failed to show the courage we need to keep us safe. Bump stocks are still legal. Background checks are still not mandatory for all gun sales. Americans are demanding that their lawmakers pass effective laws that can protect our communities and stop dangerous people from accessing guns, but this Congress refuses to listen. We should be outraged. And we should be making plans to hold them accountable. I'm ready to stand with voters and make our voices heard loud and clear in November.

Bump stocks, which the Trump administration plans to ban by creatively reinterpreting federal law, played no role in yesterday's crime or any other mass shooting, with the exception of last year's attack in Las Vegas (and it's debatable whether they increased the death toll there). Nor did the Annapolis shooter use anything that would qualify as an "assault weapon," another favorite target of gun controllers. Police say Jarrod Ramos, the man charged with carrying out the attack, legally bought the pump-action shotgun he used a year ago, which means he did not have a disqualifying criminal or psychiatric record. Mandating background checks for gun sales that don't involve federally licensed dealers, as Giffords recommends, plainly would not affect someone who can pass a background check.

As for "effective laws that can protect our communities and stop dangerous people from accessing guns," Giffords might have in mind gun violence restraining orders (GVROs), which prohibit people deemed to be dangerous from possessing firearms. Maryland's GVRO law, enacted in April, takes effect in October, so that option was not available to use against Ramos, who pleaded guilty to misdemeanor harassment of a former high school classmate in 2011 and unsuccessfully sued the Capital Gazette for defamation after it covered the case. Ramos had a history of using the internet to pester and insult members of the paper's staff. "I was seriously concerned he would threaten us with physical violence," Thomas Marquardt, the Capital Gazette's publisher at the time of the libel suit, told The Baltimore Sun. "I even told my wife, 'We have to be concerned. This guy could really hurt us.'"

The Sun reports that Marquardt "called the Anne Arundel County police about Ramos in 2013, but nothing came of it." Marquardt also "consulted the paper's lawyers about filing a restraining order, but decided against it." Given that background, it's not clear that police would have sought a GVRO if that option had been available at the time. In any case, Congress does not have the power to authorize GVROs in Maryland or any other state, although a bill introduced last year by Rep. Salud Carbajal (D-Calif.) would provide grants to states that enact such laws. The failure to enact that bill, which manifestly was not necessary for Maryland to pass a GVRO law, seems like a pretty thin pretext for blaming the Annapolis attack on congressional inaction.

"I remember telling our attorneys, 'This is a guy who is going to come in and shoot us,' " Marquardt told the Sun. The actions that led to Ramos's criminal harassment conviction, which included emails urging the victim to kill herself and contacts with her employer that she believes led to her dismissal, reasonably aroused concern that his behavior might escalate. When you combine that history with Ramos's frivolous lawsuit and his online taunts of Capital Gazette staff members, it is not hard to see why Marquardt was worried about him, although the fact that Marquardt decided not to seek a restraining order suggests his fear may have been magnified in retrospect by the knowledge of what Ramos ultimately did.

Under Maryland's new law, law enforcement officers, mental health professionals, and various relatives, intimates, and associates can seek GVROs. A temporary GVRO, lasting up to a week, can be issued without giving the respondent a hearing if there are "reasonable grounds" to believe he poses "an immediate and present danger" to himself or others. A judge can extend that order for up to six months "to effectuate service of the order where necessary to provide protection or for other good cause." A final GVRO, which lasts up to a year and can be extended for another six months, can be issued after a hearing based on "clear and convincing evidence" that the respondent poses a danger to himself or others.

In practice, getting a temporary GVRO against Ramos would have been easy, especially since he would have had no opportunity to rebut the claims against him. It also seems plausible that a police officer could have obtained a final GVRO, which would have prevented Ramos from legally buying a gun for as long as it was in effect. If police had sought a GVRO in 2013, when Marquardt contacted them about Ramos, the order might have lasted until 2015 or so, assuming it was extended. According to police, Ramos bought his shotgun in 2017.

In short, it's not at all clear that a GVRO could have stopped Ramos, and the fact that the option was not available at the time had nothing to do with any failure on the part of Congress. Reflexively blaming congressional inaction for every mass shooting may be emotionally satisfying, but it does nothing to advance a rational discussion of policies aimed at preventing gun violence.