Texas has been the scene of a tremendous amount of gun-related turmoil as of late, but Saturday's lone wolf attack on the Dallas Police Department headquarters still stands out as a particularly scary incident.
As is the case with every horrific incident of gun violence in this country, we ask the same questions: Were there warning signs? How could this have been prevented? And in this case, it's hard not to ask: What might have been different if Texas had a "Gun Violence Restraining Order" (GVRO) policy in place? A GVRO enables concerned family members and/or law enforcement officers to remove guns from individuals who could be dangerous to themselves or others -- before a tragedy occurs.
First, the facts... Early Saturday morning, 35 year-old James Boulware rammed an armored van he had purchased on Ebay into a police squad car outside the headquarters, then opened fire on officers with an arsenal that included two rifles, a 12 gauge shotgun, .45-caliber revolver, 9mm semiautomatic pistol, flak jacket, body armor, and hundreds of rounds of ammunition.
He then fled the scene, but an officer was able to partially disable the van with stop sticks at a nearby intersection. Boulware then pulled into a Jack in the Box parking lot in Hutchins, Texas, where a standoff ensued. Police opened fire on Boulware's van with a .50-caliber sniper rifle, targeting the engine block and driver's windshield. A police sniper finally killed the gunman just after 5:00 a.m.
One officer at the scene described the standoff at the Jack in the Box by saying, "Everyone was trying not to get shot at that point." "I felt like I was in a war," she added. Miraculously, no law enforcement officers were killed in the gun battle.
Immediately after the incident, details about Boulware's motivation and background began to emerge. He was angry about the losing his 11 year-old son in a custody battle (custody was eventually given to Boulware's mother, Jeannine Hammond) and blamed the police for it. Boulware also had a long history of mental illness and violence.
He spent time in Millwood mental health hospital in Arlington, Texas when he was 14, and staff there believed him to be schizophrenic. After leaving the hospital, Boulware continued to struggle with suicidal thoughts. He attempted to kill himself by overdosing on drugs when he was 17 or 18. It is unclear if Boulware ever received another psychiatric evaluation after becoming an adult. He continuously refused to seek treatment despite the urgings of his family members.
In 2013, things took another turn for the worse. In April of that year, Boulware's mother made a remark about him "going to hell" after he uttered offensive remarks about religion, Jews and Christians. Boulware then grabbed his mother by the throat and began to choke the life from her. His uncle had to intervene to stop the attack, and a vicious fight ensued. They were finally able to subdue Boulware, but were so concerned about their safety that they fled to a hotel in a tiny town in East Texas.
After he attacked his mother, Boulware fled the scene, and police began searching for him. Boulware's brother contacted law enforcement and told them James had talked about shooting up a school or church, and was likely headed to his home in Paris, Texas to retrieve a considerable arsenal of guns and ammunition that he kept there. Police intercepted Boulware before he got there, and discovered marijuana inside his vehicle. Lamar County Sheriff deputies temporarily confiscated the firearms they found in his home, but had to give them back six months later after the family decided not to go ahead with assault charges. Boulware's mother still loved her son, and did not want him to have to face a felony record as he attempted to get his life back on track.
Put simply, even after trying to kill his mother, Boulware was still a "Good Guy with a Gun" (i.e., a legal firearm owner/purchaser) as far as federal and Texas state gun laws were concerned. Lamar County Sheriff Scott Cass made it clear he was simply following a judge's order in returning Boulware's weapons. But even judges in Texas had their hands tied, because Boulware was not a felon and had never been involuntary committed to a psychiatric institution. "It doesn't surprise me that he did something like this," said Judge Kim Cooks, who handled the custody case involving Boulware's son. "I knew he was going to do something, but I always thought his target would have been me."
It didn't have to be this way.
If Texas had something similar to California's recently enacted Gun Violence Restraining Order policy in place, law enforcement officers could have gone through a court process to temporarily prohibit Boulware from purchasing and/or possessing firearms if there was a substantial likelihood that he posed a significant danger of harm to himself or another in the near future. (in California, the prohibition can last for up to one year and can be renewed). Importantly, the law does not rely on a mental illness diagnoses as a marker for dangerousness, and can therefore be applied whether or not the individual has a mental illness (although that was clearly a factor in this case).
Boulware's family members could clearly see he was in crisis. His mother noted, "We tried to get him mental help numerous times, but the system failed him, because he was declared 'sane.' He was very delusional. It was very obvious." Could a Gun Violence Restraining Order have saved James Boulware and prevented his attack on the Dallas Police headquarters? It's impossible to know for sure. But if this tool had been available, it would have been one more option that could have been pursued to keep him, his family, law enforcement, and the community safe.