24-year-old David Katz is accused of going on a shooting rampage during a video game tournament before taking his own life.
When David Katz gunned down two fellow video game enthusiasts in Jacksonville on Sunday, he became evil incarnate.
But was this the act of an enraged gamer bent on murderous revenge, or a deranged individual who should not have had access to a gun?
In hindsight, the latter seems logical, particularly in light of court documents from his parents’ bitter divorce that suggest Katz’s psychological troubles started more than a decade ago.
But in legal terms, Katz, 24, who killed himself at the scene after also injuring a dozen others, lawfully obtained his two handguns in a state — Maryland — that is among a dozen with comparatively high hurdles to firearm ownership.
According to a ranking of states based on the toughness of their gun laws, Maryland rates an A-, according to the Giffords Law Center to Prevent Violence, placing it just behind California, New Jersey, Connecticut, Massachusetts and New York.
Specifically, Maryland goes a few steps beyond federal laws — which prevent the sale of weapons to those “adjudicated as a mental defective” — and restricts sales to anyone with a history of violent behavior or those who voluntarily have spent more than 30 days in a mental health facility.
Applicants also must submit to fingerprint-based background checks and take firearms training courses.
So even though Katz had, according to a summary of online court records reviewed by USA TODAY, been sent for a short spell as a teen to Maryland’s Sheppard Pratt Health System and spent a few months at Utah’s RedCliff Ascent Wilderness Treatment Program, none of this would have disqualified him from future gun ownership.
“We set a high bar for removing someone’s gun in the U.S., and getting mental health treatment doesn’t meet that bar,” says Susan B. Sorenson, professor of social policy at the University of Pennsylvania and an expert on gun violence prevention.
“People get disappointed and angry and often that results in a tragedy,” she says. “But those reactions aren’t unique to people with disorders, they’re unique to being human.”
Investigators in Florida are still trying to piece together Katz’s final days in order to try and determine a motive for his attack, which left Elijah Clayton, 22, of California, and Taylor Robertson, 28, of West Virginia, dead.
Diving into the details of Katz’s past behavior may offer clues, says Daniel Webster, director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research.
“The best predictor of future violence is prior violence,” he says. But, he adds, “Being treated for a mental health condition is a poor predictor for future acts of violence. The vast majority of people being treated for mental illness aren’t a threat.”
From a public policy standpoint, Webster says restricting access to goods or services based on treatment for mental health issues risks stigmatizing those who seek help.
In the case of Katz, “If we rolled back the clock and you showed me his background, would I say he’d commit a mass shooting?” he says. “I wouldn’t.”
But Katz was not without deep issues. He was at the center of a bitter divorce between his father, Richard, a NASA engineer, and his mother, Elizabeth, who worked for the Food and Drug Administration.
Divorce proceedings frequently cited David’s psychological volatility. He would, said Howard County Circuit Court Judge Lenore Gelfman, go “days without bathing,” play video games until dawn and was “extremely hostile” toward his mother, according to court transcripts cited by the Baltimore Sun.
Katz also was taking an anti-psychotic drug used to treat bipolar disorder and schizophrenia, according to court records. Despite his issues, Katz graduated high school in 2011 and, a few years later, enrolled at the University of Maryland.
While his studies were not exceptional, Katz had developed a reputation as a winning video gamer, which included a Buffalo Bills Madden championship in 2017. It was at another Madden contest in Jacksonville last weekend that Katz returned to compete, but where he instead became unhinged.
Gun policy experts agree that Katz did not fall through any cracks in Maryland’s system, emphasizing that only previous acts of violence or extreme threats of violence would have provided a warning of things to come.
But some states provide families and law enforcement with concerns about certain individuals to flag past incidents and, when necessary, revoke gun ownership.
Called the Extreme Risk and Protection Order, which currently is in full effect in California, Oregon and Washington, the measure allows applicants to petition the court for temporary removal of weapons from anyone who displays warning signs of potentially violent behavior.
“If Maryland had had ERPO, it could have in theory allowed law enforcement to deny the issuing of a handgun permit (to Katz based on his past psychiatric episodes),” says Allison Anderman, managing attorney for the Giffords Law Center. “But so far we don’t know if he showed any behaviors that would have warranted such an action.”
Instead, Anderman cautions that while previous mass shootings have been carried out by individuals with mental health issues — including Sandy Hook Elementary School killer Adam Lanza, and Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School killer Nikolas Cruz — that remains the exception, not the rule.
“Most mentally ill people are not only not violent or a threat, but they’re statistically more likely to be victims of violent crime,” she says.
Gun control remains a deeply contentious topic in the U.S., especially with the escalating number of instances of mass killings such as the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, where 49 died in 2016, and the Las Vegas concert massacre, where 58 were killed in 2017.
In the wake of the shooting in Jacksonville, National Rifle Association spokesperson Dana Loesch tweeted that the incident highlights the need to revisit so-called “gun-free zones,” which prevented patrons, such as the ones at The Landing, from bringing guns to the premises.
In contrast, former congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, who survived a shooting while on the campaign trail in 2011 and now runs the gun prevention organization, posted on the law center’s website that the nation should not “accept these horrific acts of violence as routine. Congress knows steps they can take to stop this madness.”
While gun control certainly will be in the spotlight as voters head to the polls in November, it remains to be seen if this latest tragedy will fit the narrative on either side of the debate.
Katz was an adult who legally applied for and received a firearms permit in a state that takes gun access seriously. And his mental health issues appear to have been largely in the past, with no apparent signs of alarming violence in recent years.
In truth, it’s likely no present gun control measures would have kept a firearm from Katz.
Gun policy expert Webster suggests that going after individuals with mental health challenges risks missing far more at-risk gun permit applicants.
“Sure, objectively individuals with some sort of mental illness are probably better off if they don’t have guns,” he says.
“But the bigger issue is we’re still allowing too many people with histories of violence to purchase handguns and legally carry them around, things like domestic abuse. That’s incredibly dangerous and not justifiable.”
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