Tim Steller

Arizona Daily Star columnist Tim Steller

Tucson police knew Ryan Schlesinger posed a threat.

And they knew he probably had a gun, even though they had seized the one he previously owned, back in August 2017. After being ordered into a mental-health evaluation, Schlesinger wasn’t supposed to have another gun.

But police efforts to get Schlesinger forced into mental-health treatment failed, and they lacked tools to seize any weapons he might have. When in November 2018 they finally got an arrest warrant for him, a criminal complaint says, Schlesinger fired on the deputy U.S. marshals trying to serve it. Deputy Marshal Chase White died.

The complaint against Schlesinger alleges an alarming escalation of threats and actions, including trying to perform citizen’s arrests on police officers at their station, that ought to have been stopped somehow in the seven months before they escalated into killing on Nov. 29.

The governor and some legislators think they have a tool the police could use. They’re commonly known as Extreme Risk Protection Orders, but in the governor’s proposal, the name is Severe Threat Order of Protection, or STOP order. Whatever the name, the idea is that families or authorities could request a judicial order to seize the guns of someone who poses an immediate threat to themselves or others.

An order like this could have been useful against Schlesinger, in the months beginning April 2018, when he started sending vague threats to Tucson police demanding the return of his gun.

But his case also shows the shortcomings of such orders. After all, he got a gun — a Weaponsmart WMX 15 multi-caliber rifle, the indictment says — when he wasn’t supposed to have one.

“You can see where a law like this would have assisted us in this investigation,” said Sgt. Jason Winsky, who heads the Tucson police mental-health unit. “Just the idea that you can have some laws that separate people from their firearms in that crisis moment, when it’s the most critical time.”

The idea of threat-based gun-seizure orders isn’t new, but it spread around the country in 2018, after the Feb. 14 mass shooting at Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. Thirteen states have similar laws now, eight of them passed after the Parkland massacre.

Gov. Doug Ducey introduced what he labeled his Safe Arizona Schools plan on March 19. It included two avenues for STOP orders — an emergency process for law-enforcement officers only, and an “ex-parte” process for family members, police, school officials or behavioral health professionals.

That’s not how the bill ended up. The National Rifle Association approved of the bill, but it isn’t the most influential gun-rights group at the state Capitol. The Arizona Citizens Defense League is, and its representatives objected especially to the idea of “ex-parte” hearings — hearings in which the person whose guns are being targeted for seizure are not given the opportunity to be heard.

“You can’t just get an order against somebody that effectively disarms them without allowing them to offer a case,” Charles Heller of the Citizens Defense League told me Friday. “If you have an order to remove firearms before someone has had a chance to go before a court, it’s openly a failure of due process.”

By the end of the negotiation, the league had won amendments that eliminated the ex-parte hearings, requiring instead that a respondent be given a chance to make an argument before an order seizing his guns was issued. Even with those changes, the bill didn’t go anywhere.

This year, the governor is reintroducing his school-safety plan with some changes. Among them, Ducey spokesman Patrick Ptak told me, the STOP-order legislation will guarantee a right to an appearance by the respondent, eliminating ex-parte hearings from the get-go.

In my view, it’s an OK effort, tailored to win the votes of Republicans who likely will oppose the bill in the end anyway. But the governor could go a stronger direction and maybe win more votes — from Democrats.

On the Democratic side, two Tucson legislators are offering their own bills and call the governor’s idea inadequate. Not coincidentally, both of them were survivors, of a sort, of the Jan. 8, 2011, mass shooting in Tucson. Rep. Daniel Hernandez, of course, was at the scene of the shooting and helped then-U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords after she was shot. Rep. Randy Friese is a surgeon who treated Giffords and other victims.

Friese, still a surgeon at Banner-University Medical Center, also operated on Deputy Marshal White after he was shot in November, he told me.

Friese called the requirements of the governor’s proposal too cumbersome and said they give way too much notice for gunmen to act out before their weapons are seized.

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He likened it to a notice to an angry man that “I better shoot my wife today then.”

In contrast, the bills introduced by both Hernandez and Friese, HB 2161 and HB 2249, would function more like protection orders or injunctions against harassment as they exist today. In those cases, the person who files for the order appears before a judge quickly without notice to the person the order is filed against.

In both proposals, the respondents have a right to challenge any order — within 14 days in Hernandez’s bill, and within 10 days of the respondent requesting one in Friese’s bill.

Another key distinction between the proposals Ducey offered last year and that Friese and Hernandez are offering this year: Focus on mental illness. Ducey’s proposal was especially aimed at seizing weapons from people with mental illness who pose a threat, whereas the Democrats’ bill focuses simply on people who pose a threat. Schlesinger, of course, represented both problems.

Allison Anderman, of the Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, said the applicability in his case was clear.

“If Arizona had an extreme risk protection order, law enforcement could have gone in right away,” Anderman said. “They wouldn’t have had to wait until he was criminally stalking someone.”

Of course, they would have eventually had to serve the order somehow, and serving an arrest warrant is how White was killed.

“Law enforcement is always at risk when serving a warrant on weapons in this country,” Anderman said. “It’s not the laws that put them at risk. It’s the fact that it’s so easy for dangerous people to get guns that puts them at risk.”

Looking back at Schlesinger’s case, either the Democratic or Republican proposals would have been helpful. Even if he was afforded a chance to defend his right to have a gun at a hearing, it would have been an additional lever for the police.

But of course, the fact that he got a gun anyway shows that there are other problems that still need solving — especially the ability of a determined person to get a gun even if he is prohibited.

Contact: tsteller@tucson.com or 807-7789. On Twitter: @senyorreporter

Columnist

Tim Steller is the Star’s metro columnist. A 20-plus year veteran of reporting and editing, he digs into issues and stories that matter in the Tucson area, reports the results and tells you his opinion on it all.