Maryland's "red flag law" claims its first victim as police kill gun owner

While most of us were focused on the upcoming election, there was a tragic story unfolding on Monday in Ferndale, Maryland, a suburb to the south of Baltimore. Maryland has enacted a new “red flag” law which allows people to call in reports of gun owners who are acting erratically and may present a danger to themselves or others. Under this new law, that gives the police the right to show up and confiscate their firearms. (The law has only been in effect for a month.) That’s what happened to 61-year-old Gary J. Willis.

Unfortunately, when the police rolled up at his house before six in the morning, Mr. Willis answered the door holding his handgun. Then everything went wrong. (CBS Baltimore)

According to police, two officers serving a new Extreme Risk Protective Order (Red Flag Law), a Maryland protective order to remove guns from a household, shot and killed the man listed on that order…

That man was identified as Gary J. Willis of same address.

Officials said Willis answered the door while holding a handgun. Willis then placed the gun next to the door. When officers began to serve him the order, Willis became irate and grabbed his gun.

One of the officers tried to take the gun from Willis, but instead, Willis fired the gun. The second officer fired a gun, striking Willis. He died at the scene.

This is a horrible story and assigning blame here may not wind up involving either the officers or Willis himself, or at least not entirely. First of all, when the police show up at your house, answering the door with a gun in your hand is just about the worst choice you can make. The officers, who were later identified as Cpl. Jessica Hooper and Officer Gary Zawodny, are going to immediately be on edge, which is never good. Willis may have set aside his weapon briefly, but as outrageous as a gun confiscation order would be to any lawful owner of firearms, picking up the gun again and discharging it is a sure way to get yourself killed.

Neither officer was injured and both have been placed on administrative leave while the investigation moves forward as per standard policy.

So it’s tough to lay the blame on the cops here. The guy drew on them and discharged his weapon. But the real question is why they were sent to take away Mr. Willis’ weapons in the first place. We don’t know and we may never know. That’s because this very dubious “red flag law” makes all requests for Extreme Risk Protective Orders confidential and they can be submitted anonymously. Perhaps the order was submitted by a mental health professional who was treating Willis and they had justifiable reasons. Perhaps Willis had been discharging the weapon inside the home or threatening a family member.

But it’s also possible that somebody was just angry with Willis or is really opposed to firearm ownership and decided to call in a claim. Let’s not pretend that something like that can’t or won’t happen. But as I said, we don’t know because the law was crafted in a way to keep us from finding out. So really, anyone can have a dime dropped on them for no reason and the police will soon be at the door to confiscate their firearms.

Granted, the fact that Willis answered the door with his handgun doesn’t speak well of his safe firearm handling practices nor even common sense. But that’s not the point. He could have been the safest, most responsible gun owner in the neighborhood and a disgruntled relative or unscrupulous therapist could have made a phone call and the police would have arrived wiith a court order. This is a bad law, and if it’s not going to be repealed it needs to be modified for more oversight.