Most mentally disturbed people don't walk into an FBI office and declare that voices are telling them to take up arms with terrorist groups. But that's just what Esteban Santiago did, two months before authorities say he flew Friday from Alaska to Fort Lauderdale, retrieved his checked handgun from baggage claim and killed five people. This was a preventable tragedy and requires a review of laws addressing the mentally disturbed and their access to firearms.
The victims in Fort Lauderdale were grandparents and great-grandparents. Retirees and married couples celebrating anniversaries. Many were headed off on Caribbean cruises. Now their families are planning funerals following another random and senseless mass shooting. Airport security protocols already are being debated. U.S. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Weston, is interested in pushing a rule that would require airline passengers who legally check guns in their baggage to retrieve them outside areas busy with other travelers. That is appropriate, but the best opportunity to prevent the Fort Lauderdale tragedy was back in November.
The FBI reported that Santiago showed up at an Alaska field office on Nov. 7 and told agents that U.S. intelligence agencies were controlling his mind and forcing him to watch Islamic State recruiting videos. He had an ammunition clip in his pocket and a pistol in his car. Both were confiscated. Santiago also recently had been discharged from the Alaska Army National Guard after years of good service and had been accused of domestic violence by his live-in girlfriend. He was given a psychiatric evaluation and hospitalized — it's unclear for how long — before being released with no apparent follow-up treatment or medication. Then, lacking a judge's finding that Santiago was mentally ill, local authorities gave him back his gun. Federal officials didn't put Santiago on the no-fly list, so the 26-year-old Iraq War veteran returned, unmonitored and unnoticed, to private life. Until Friday.
In 2013, Florida lawmakers passed a law prohibiting people from buying guns who are voluntarily committed for mental health treatment. It was a smart reform but couldn't have stopped Santiago because even though he sought help willingly, the law doesn't apply to guns a person already owns. State and national leaders should be looking for more ways to find common ground and keep guns out of the hands of the mentally ill. Instead, too many Florida legislators are determined to loosen gun restrictions. Legislation filed by Sen. Greg Steube, R-Sarasota, would allow concealed weapons permit holders to carry firearms openly and eliminate no-gun zones in universities and public schools, government meetings, career centers and airport passenger terminals. Steube predictably pointed to the Fort Lauderdale airport shootings as justification for his legislation, but that is no way to stem gun violence. More guns in airports and other public places would not make anyone safer, and it would complicate situations for police responding to reports of gunfire.
What makes the Fort Lauderdale airport shooting particularly disturbing are the many warning signs that preceded it. There is no indication Santiago broke any gun laws before he arrived in Florida — and that is exactly why the laws dealing with guns and the mentally disturbed should be strengthened.