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Fort Lauderdale airport shooting reveals deficiency in Alaska law on crisis intervention

  • Author: Dermot Cole
    | Opinion
  • Updated: December 2, 2017
  • Published January 10, 2017

Had Esteban Santiago been in Connecticut, Indiana or California two months ago when he spoke incoherently to FBI agents about a U.S. intelligence agency controlling his mind, local police might not have been so quick to give him back his gun.

Police and families in those states have something missing in Alaska — a legal basis upon which to seek a court order to temporarily remove a gun from someone in crisis, who appears to pose a threat to himself and others.

In Alaska, there is no straightforward legal process to weigh immediate risks and disarm people who are prone to violent behavior. Anchorage police aren't talking, but that appears to be why they gave Santiago back his gun Dec. 8.

A month later he flew to Fort Lauderdale, with a Walther 9mm handgun in a gun case as his only checked baggage. He loaded it in a bathroom stall and walked out into the terminal and "shot the first people he encountered," according to documents filed in federal court. Five people died and eight were injured.

Santiago's brother in Puerto Rico told the Sun-Sentinel newspaper in Florida that Esteban believed the CIA had been "sending him secret codes to his laptop." Law enforcement sources said he reported hearing voices in his head to join ISIS.

One of the early lessons to be drawn from this situation is the deficiency in Alaska law regarding people in crisis and their access to firearms.

The mind control statements and the half-dozen encounters Santiago had with the Anchorage Police Department last year showed the potential for trouble, while not meeting the existing standard for a gun ban, which requires a court to order involuntary commitment in an institution for 30 days.

Most people who are mentally ill are not violent, and there is a major disconnect between the law and identifying people at risk.

Alaska needs to examine ideas that balance public safety and Second Amendment rights. A law enacted in Connecticut in 1999 has won support from many people on both sides of the gun control debate, though not from the National Rifle Association, which is no surprise.

Police in Connecticut can get a civil warrant to remove a gun from someone on a temporary basis if there is reason to believe that person is dangerous. Indiana followed suit in 2006, as did California in 2014. Voters in Washington state approved an initiative in November to allow families and police to seek "extreme risk protection orders" preventing people from having guns for up to one year.

The day before that election Santiago went to the FBI office in Anchorage and said he did not wish to hurt anyone, but he "appeared agitated, incoherent and made disjointed statements," FBI agent-in-charge Marlin Ritzman told reporters Saturday.

City police said he had a magazine for his pistol on him, but left the gun in the car. He brought his infant child with him.

"He broke no laws when he came into our office, making disjointed comments about mind control," Ritzman said.

Federal law says a person has to be officially determined by the legal system to be mentally ill before being denied access to guns. The state follows the federal standard, meaning Santiago was legally clear to keep his gun.

Karen Loeffler, U.S. attorney in Alaska, said federal law sets a "difficult standard" to meet for removing guns from a person believed to be at risk. She said as far as she knows, Santiago is not someone who would have been prohibited from having a gun.

After his bizarre statements to FBI agents, APD picked him up for a mental health evaluation and a brief hospitalization, the details of which have not been released.

Hindsight is perfect, I know, but this is an instance in which a deficiency in state law apparently prevented the only reasonable response — which would have been for Anchorage police to hold on to Santiago's gun.

Columnist Dermot Cole can be reached at dermot@alaskadispatch.com. 

The views expressed here are the writer's and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary@alaskadispatch.com. Send submissions shorter than 200 words to letters@alaskadispatch.com or click here to submit via any web browser.

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