The school safety law that Gov. Rick Scott (R-FL) signed into law earlier this month included provisions creating “risk protection orders,” under which a civil injunction can be imposed allowing law enforcement to seize firearms from people if a court finds them to be mentally ill or presenting a threat of violence to themselves or others. Just a week after the law was signed, it was used to take a gun from the home of an Orlando college student who posted online threats and made comments to police about committing a mass shooting at local schools.
As the Orlando Sentinel reported, Chris Velasquez, a 21-year-old student at the University of Central Florida, made several online posts calling recent mass shooters “heroes” and indicating an interest in committing a school shooting himself.
The petition for a risk protection order, which was obtained by the Orlando Sentinel on Wednesday, shows that Velasquez published a comment on Reddit on Feb. 10 under the group thread “You guys are too weak to be a school shooter,” saying, “Maybe for now but not forever.”
UCF police got involved after receiving several calls from students reporting Velasquez’s post, made under the username “The Real UCF Chris.” He also praised Las Vegas shooter Stephen Paddock, commenting in a Reddit thread about Paddock’s autopsy, “R.I.P. my hero.”
In a later comment under a thread about the Parkland shooting, Velasquez wrote, “Cruz is a hero!,” an apparent reference to accused gunman Nikolas Cruz, the petition shows.
UCF police investigated and linked the posts to Velasquez, who they questioned on March 5. According to the application for the risk protection order, Velasquez admitted to writing the online posts and told them he “had thoughts and urges to commit a mass shooting since his sophomore year of high school in 2014,” craving the “adrenaline rush” he believed the experience would bring him.
Velasquez said that he had been bullied while he was a student at Odyssey Middle School and Lake Nona High School, two Orlando-area public schools, and if he were to commit a mass shooting, he would target those campuses.
Velasquez also said that he was not actively preparing for a mass shooting, “did not have the courage to go through with it, yet,” but that it had “always just been a thought” in his head.
The risk protection order UCF police requested was granted, and they, along with Orlando police and an FBI special agent, went to the home where Velasquez lives with his parents. The order required Velasquez to turn over any guns in his possession, and prohibited him from buying or obtaining any others. He did not own any guns himself, but his father had a Taurus “UltraLite” revolver, which Velasquez had experience shooting at a nearby range. Velasquez’s father voluntarily turned over the gun to the police.
No criminal charges have been brought against Velasquez. The law creating these risk protection orders designed them to be temporary, and a court hearing is scheduled later this month to determine if the gun should be returned to his father. Velasquez was admitted to a mental health center under the state’s Baker Act, which allows involuntary commitment of those deemed to pose a threat to themselves or others. He has since been released after an evaluation. UCF is reviewing his conduct and he has been “trespassed” from campus until that is completed.
Velasquez’s family has retained an attorney, Kendra Parris, who gave several quotes to the Orlando Sentinel objecting to what she called the “shameful” treatment and “coercive” interrogation of her client, “dragging an innocent student with zero history of violence or mental health issues through the mud.”
“Officer [Jeffrey] Panter took a handful of online comments — none of which was an actual threat — from a forum in which people are known to troll and act like ‘edgelords,’ ” said Parris.
Is is possible the UCF police overreacted and Velasquez would not have ever actually harmed anyone? Is it possible his online posts were just juvenile-yet-harmless trolling? Sure.
But when you look at the combination of Velasquez’s admitted online posts expressing admiration for mass shooters and a desire to experience that himself, with his comments to police affirming that desire and even naming specific schools he would target — it’s alarming.
Considering the terrible consequences that we have seen happen when law enforcement fails to take threats to school safety seriously — we’re looking at you, Broward Sheriff Scott Israel — there is a strong argument that the use of the risk protection order in this case was a prudent “better safe than sorry” type of action.
It’s a widely-known mantra that the First Amendment right to free speech does not include the right to yell “Fire!” in a crowded theater. Perhaps we need to add to that the idea that you don’t have a right to joke about committing a school shooting.
Local law enforcement defended the use of the risk protection order against Velasquez. Orlando Police Chief John Mina released a statement, saying “We are grateful that this avenue is available to us now; it will help OPD — and all law enforcement agencies — further protect the communities we serve.”
Likewise, UCF Police Department spokeswoman Courtney Gilmartin said the police acted “appropriately” and did not mislead Velasquez. “We should all sleep easier at night knowing that a firearm was removed from his household and that he is barred from purchasing any others.”
Ryan Petty, whose 14-year-old daughter Alaina Petty was killed in the Parkland shooting and was a vocal supporter of the new legislation, shared the Orlando Sentinel article on Facebook, praising the law as “giv[ing] law enforcement what they need to prevent violence” and, in this case, a “potential mass shooting averted.”
Follow Sarah Rumpf on Twitter: @rumpfshaker.
[Cross-posted at The Capitolist.]