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SAT/SUN: New Mexico football teams rally for hospitalized player, Red Flag laws rarely used despite soaring gun deaths and shootings, + More

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New Mexico teams rally for hospitalized football player – By Stephen Wagner, Las Cruces Sun - News

The high school students' thoughts and prayers were elsewhere — with Abraham Romero in the intensive care unit at El Paso Children's Hospital as a solemn stillness crept over the hundreds of fans at the Field of Dreams watching Organ Mountain's game against Mayfield High.

The only sound came from the flapping of a white flag with "#ABESTRONG" and the number 22, his jersey number, inscribed underneath an Organ Mountain High School logo.

The Organ Mountain and Mayfield players kneeled at midfield after it was announced that the first cross-city rivalry game of the season would be dedicated to Romero, the Organ Mountain senior linebacker who has remained in a medically induced coma since suddenly collapsing between plays during the team's game against Deming. They remained still during the silence – 22 seconds long for No. 22.

Romero wasn't in attendance to watch the Knights 28-0 win over the Trojans (their first win over Mayfield since 2017), but his presence was undeniable, the Las Cruces Sun-News reported.

Fans wore bright green ribbons with the number "22" on their lapels. Players wore helmet decals with the initials "A.R." The home stands were covered in signs offering support for the 17-year-old: "STRONG FOR 22;" "FIGHT FOR ABE;" "LET'S FIGHT ON #22."

Booster club parents patrolled the stands holding collection jars with Romero's photo while high school students collected for the 50/50 raffle, the proceeds of which both booster clubs pledged to donate to Romero and his family.

"I got choked up talking to the officials before the game. We still had Abe be a captain tonight. We just wrote down his number," head coach Steve Castille said. "Not for one second was it off our minds. It's a huge deal. (Football) both has to be on the back burner a little bit, but the game's still on the schedule."

Romero's mother, Elizabeth Alonzo, watched Organ Mountain's most inspired performance of the season on her iPad propped on his hospital bed while she clasped her hand around his. She still wanted him to be able to listen to the broadcaster's call of the Knights tied 0-0 at halftime, then jump out to a 14-0 lead in the third quarter, then drive in the dagger in the fourth quarter even if he wasn't conscious. He had never missed a football game before.

"(I'm) viewing the game right next to my Knight as if I was watching him on the field," Alonzo said. "Always together."

Romero has remained unconscious for the last six days, and Alonzo has asked for as many prayers as possible as her son continues to battle. But the community sent a reminder Thursday night that the family isn't alone.

Mayfield's cheerleading squad donated $260 to the Romero family, bolstering the more than $3,000 the city's four major high schools have raised already. Mayfield raised an additional $1,389 in its 50/50 raffle to donate to the family, which also included the profits from its last home game, and Organ Mountain contributed $624 from its 50/50 raffle. Alonzo said she has personally received more than $300 donated directly to her already.

Cobre and Silver City High Schools have also said they will accept donations during their game Friday night, and Las Cruces High, Centennial, Mayfield and Organ Mountain High Schools will collectively host a car wash at Three Crosses Regional Hospital in Las Cruces Sunday, Sept. 4.

"I feel unbelievably blessed that the community has united for my son and he is so loved," Alonzo said. "I would trade the world to have my son on the field tonight with the rest of his brothers."

Alonzo remembered her family isn't alone in the fight.

And heard it too.

As the clock wound down and the two teams trudged toward midfield for the postgame handshake, Organ Mountain's bleachers broke out chanting, "Twenty-two! Twenty-two!" The band banged its bass drum 22 times.

The scorekeeper stopped the clock at 22 seconds. Players carried a flag with Romero's number as they huddled on the field after the game and proclaimed a new era of Knight football. They held a 22-second prayer after the game. Several players remained kneeled for longer as they held back tears.

This one was for Abe.

"It's a tough thing to lose a brother like that in the fashion that it happened," Castille said. "...It's an amazing thing for the community when you get into that stuff. I don't know if 'romantic' is the word I'm going to use, but it brings this whole community together."

Red flag laws get little use as shootings, gun deaths soarBy Bernard Condon, Associated Press

An Associated Press analysis found many U.S. states barely use "red flag" laws that allow police to take guns away from people threatening to kill, a trend blamed on lack of awareness of the laws and a reluctance to enforce them even as gun deaths soar. The AP found the 19 states and the District of Columbia that have such laws used them 15,049 times since 2020, fewer than 10 per 100,000 adult residents. Experts called that woefully low and not nearly enough to make a dent in gun violence, considering the millions of firearms in circulation across the country.

Chicago is one of the nation's gun violence hotspots and a seemingly ideal place to employ Illinois' "red flag" law that allows police to step in and take firearms away from people who threaten to kill. But amid more than 8,500 shootings resulting in 1,800 deaths since 2020, the law was used there just four times.

It's a pattern that's played out in New Mexico, with nearly 600 gun homicides during that period and a mere eight uses of its red flag law. And in Massachusetts, with nearly 300 shooting homicides and just 12 uses of its law.

An Associated Press analysis found many U.S. states barely use the red flag laws touted as the most powerful tool to stop gun violence before it happens, a trend blamed on a lack of awareness of the laws and resistance by some authorities to enforce them even as shootings and gun deaths soar.

AP found such laws in 19 states and the District of Columbia were used to remove firearms from people 15,049 times since 2020, fewer than 10 per 100,000 adult residents. Experts called that woefully low and not nearly enough to make a dent in gun violence, considering the millions of firearms in circulation and countless potential warning signs law enforcement officers encounter from gun owners every day.

"It's too small a pebble to make a ripple," Duke University sociologist Jeffrey Swanson, who has studied red flag gun surrender orders across the nation, said of the AP tally. "It's as if the law doesn't exist."

"The number of people we are catching with red flags is likely infinitesimal," added Indiana University law professor Jody Madeira, who like other experts who reviewed AP's findings wouldn't speculate how many red flag removal orders would be necessary to make a difference.

The search for solutions comes amid a string of mass shootings in Buffalo, New York, Uvalde, Texas, and Highland Park, Illinois, and a spike in gun violence not seen in decades: 27,000 deaths so far this year, following 45,000 deaths each of the past two years.

AP's count, compiled from inquiries and Freedom of Information Law requests, showed wide disparities in how the laws were applied from state to state, county to county, most without regard to population or crime rates.

Florida led with 5,800 such orders, or 34 per 100,000 adult residents, but that is due mostly to aggressive enforcement in a few counties that don't include Miami-Dade and others with more gun killings. More than a quarter of Illinois' slim 154 orders came from one suburban county that makes up just 7% of the state's population. California had 3,197 orders but was working through a backlog of three times that number of people barred from owning guns under a variety of measures who had not yet surrendered them.

And a national movement among politicians and sheriffs that has declared nearly 2,000 counties as "Second Amendment Sanctuaries," opposing laws that infringe on gun rights, may have affected red flag enforcement in several states. In Colorado, 37 counties that consider themselves "sanctuaries" issued just 45 surrender orders in the two years through last year, a fifth fewer than non-sanctuary counties did per resident. New Mexico and Nevada reported only about 20 orders combined.

"The law shouldn't even be there in the first place," argued Richard Mack, a former Arizona sheriff who heads the pro-gun Constitutional Sheriffs and Peace Officers Association. "You're taking away someone's property and means of self-defense."

Red flag laws, most of which came into effect over the last four years, allow police officers who believe gun owners are an imminent danger to themselves or others to petition a judge to order firearms surrendered or, barring that, seized for an "emergency" period, typically two weeks. The judge can then convene a court hearing in which petitioners present evidence to withhold weapons longer, typically a year, and the owner can argue against that.

AP's tally counts an emergency order that is followed by a longer one as a single order if they involve the same gun owner. In rare cases where no one asked for an emergency order and only a longer one was requested and granted, that also counts as a single order. Several states reported incomplete data.

Some states also allow family members of gun owners, school officials, work colleagues or doctors to ask for gun removal orders, also known as extreme risk protection orders. But data reviewed by the AP show nearly all petitions in several states were initiated by police, possibly because, as several surveys have shown, few people outside law enforcement are even aware the laws exist.

The recent spike in shootings has brought renewed attention to red flag laws, with states including Alaska, Pennsylvania and Kentucky introducing legislation to add them. The Biden administration is seeking to foster wider use of red flag laws by allocating money in a newly passed federal gun law to help spread the word about such measures.

An AP-NORC poll in late July found 78% of U.S. adults strongly or somewhat favor red flag laws, but the backlash against them has been intense in some states, particularly in rural areas. Opponents argue that allowing judges to rule on gun seizures in initial emergency petitions before full hearings violates due process rights, though court cases claiming this have generally found the laws constitutional.

Many police believe seizing guns can also be dangerous and unnecessary, even as a last resort, especially in sparsely populated areas where they know many of the residents with mental health issues, said Tony Mace, head of the New Mexico Sheriffs' Association, which lobbied against the state's law.

"You're showing up with 10 to 15 law enforcement officers and coming in the middle of the night and kicking in the door, and it's already a dangerous environment," said Mace, sheriff of Cibola County, a sanctuary county with just one order since 2020. "You're dealing with someone in crisis and elevating it even more."

One fierce gun rights defender who still aggressively uses the law is Polk County, Florida, Sheriff Grady Judd, who says he doesn't let his beliefs stand in the way of moving fast when gun owners threaten violence.

"We're not going to wait for an Uvalde, Texas, or a Parkland or a Columbine if we have the information and people say that they're going to shoot or kill," said Judd, who enforced 752 orders since 2020 in a county of 725,000 residents, a tally that's more than the total orders for 15 entire states. "We're going to use the tools that the state gave us."

Florida's traditionally pro-gun Republican-led legislature passed its red flag law in 2018 following revelations police failed to act on repeated threats by an expelled student who would go on to carry out the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland earlier that year that left 17 people dead.

A recent high-profile example of a red flag law not being used was for the 21-year-old gunman accused of fatally shooting seven people and injuring dozens more at a Fourth of July parade in the Chicago suburb of Highland Park. Robert E. Crimo III drew police attention three years earlier when he threatened to "kill everyone" in his house and officers acknowledged going to the home several times previously because of a "history of attempts" to take his own life.

But Highland Park police never requested a gun surrender order, saying there was no gun belonging to Crimo to take away at the time, even though the law has a provision to block threatening people from making future purchases, too.

Illinois state Rep. Denyse Stoneback said there has clearly been a problem with awareness of the law among those tasked with carrying it out. "We'd go to police departments and they didn't know anything about it," said the Democrat who helped push through a bill last year providing $1 million in police red flag law training.

Asked why Chicago had so few red flag firearm restraining orders, police spokesman Thomas Ahern said many of the city's gun killings are committed with illegally owned firearms.

But Ahern emphasized it remained a priority of the department to increase its awareness and use of the red flag law. "If we are able to prevent one citizen from getting hurt or killed that's a law worth having and definitely not a low priority," he said.

In New York, a red flag-type situation that wasn't covered under the state's law nonetheless led to a spike in red flag gun surrender orders.

Payton Gendron was a 17-year-old high school senior last year when he was investigated by New York's State Police and ordered hospitalized for a mental health evaluation for typing into an economics class online program that his future plans included "murder-suicide." But since he was a minor, he wasn't covered under the state's red flag law and it didn't prevent him from later buying the high-powered rifle authorities say he used to kill 10 Black people in a racially-motivated shooting at Buffalo supermarket in May.

Since then, New York has seen 779 gun surrender orders under its red flag law, equal to nearly half of all its orders since the measure took effect three years ago.

Several experts said it's impossible to come up with an ideal number of red flag orders and misleading to compare states by orders because of the widely varying rates of gun ownership and gun homicides and suicides, among other stats.

Another complicating factor is that some states have stricter gun ownerships rules and multiple ways to seize firearms. In California, for instance, guns can be taken away through domestic violence restraining orders, civil harassment protection orders and school violence prevention orders in addition to the red flag law.

Still, experts consulted by AP agreed more could be done to enforce red flag laws given the prevalence of guns and the millions of gun owners that national studies suggest could be dangerous to themselves and others. In red flag states alone, figures compiled by the Gun Violence Archive show at least 21,100 homicides and 47,000 injuries during the 2½ years covered by AP's count.

Several studies suggest red flag laws can be particularly effective in preventing gun suicides, which kill about 20,000 people a year. A Duke University study of Connecticut's-first-in-the-nation red flag law in 1999 estimated that for every 10 to 20 surrender orders a life from a potential suicide was saved. A study of Indiana's law came up with a similar ratio.

While the impact of red flag laws on homicides is less well researched, studies suggest many mass shootings could be avoided if the laws were implemented aggressively. A study by the gun-control advocacy group Everytown for Gun Safety showed perpetrators exhibited dangerous warning signs before more than half of the mass shootings in the dozen years through 2020 that accounted for 596 deaths.

Such warning signs have led to many opportunities to stop gun violence, as well as missed chances.

In Colorado in 2020, police seized 59 guns from a man who complained of hit men coming to get him, bragged about shooting someone and repeatedly threatened his ex-wife.

In New Jersey in 2019, police took seven guns from a man threatening on Facebook to attack a Walmart.

And in Washington state in 2018, police removed 12 guns from the home of a man who posted on social media about killing Jews in a synagogue and kids in a school.

None of those threatened shootings happened.

But in Indianapolis in 2020, failure to employ all aspects of a red flag law resulted in disaster. After 18-year-old Brandon Hole's mother alerted police that he was threatening to commit "suicide by cop," police seized his pump-action shotgun. A county prosecutor could have gone further under the law to argue before a judge that Hole should be barred from possessing or buying a gun, but that never happened.

A few months later, Hole bought two AR-style rifles at a gun store, turning to his mother and saying, "They don't have a flag on me." Several months after that, he fatally shot eight employees in a FedEx warehouse where he had worked and injured seven more before killing himself.

"I feel the state of Indiana is an accessory to murder," a wounded Angela Hughley told the Indianapolis Star shortly after the shooting.

Amber Clark, a librarian in Sacramento, California, might still be alive today if police had acted on a tip that Ronald Seay was armed and dangerous.

The gunman's twin brother called police in 2018 warning that Seay, who had a history of mental illness and trouble with police, was making violent threats and had two semiautomatic pistols. But the police never went to a judge to ask for a gun surrender order or tell the sibling that he could do that himself.

A few weeks later, Seay unloaded 11 bullets into Clark's face, head and body at pointblank range outside the Sacramento library.

"It is obvious to me and my family that the application of California's red flag law in this case would have saved two lives – Amber's and the shooter's – and prevented immeasurable grief," said her husband, Kelly Clark. "My wife would still be alive and the killer would have received the help he needed instead of being condemned to life in prison."

As Forest Service wraps up 90-day pause on burns, NM scientist fears what comes next – By Patrick Lohmann, Source New Mexico

The United States Forest Service chief is planning to release results soon of a department-wide evaluation of prescribed burning, a review that came after an escaped burn in New Mexico that eventually became the largest in the state’s recorded history.

On May 20, which was 105 days ago, United States Forest Service Chief Randy Moore announced that the service would pause all prescribed burns in the country for 90 days to allow for a review of the agency’s practices.

The review is in its “latter stages,” a Forest Service spokesperson told Source New Mexico this week. An interagency team completed its recommendations within the 90-day timeframe and sent them to Moore, who will sign off on them.

The Forest Service aims to announce any changes in early September, according to a spokesperson.

Matt Hurteau, a forest management scientist at the University of New Mexico, said he is awaiting the findings with bated breath. He fears the agency might over-correct for the relatively rare occurrence of an errant prescribed burn and, in doing so, add additional and needless regulations at the worst possible time.

“I am concerned that it’ll become ridiculously onerous to burn,” he said in an interview Thursday.

That said, Hurteau hopes the Forest Service might come up with a way to better adapt to the effects of long-term drought and aridification in the Southwest and predict the ways those forces might make a prescribed burn riskier.

How a policy might be designed to better take heed of climate change is unclear, but Hurteau said it should respect the expertise of burn bosses and encourage caution in cases when a possible burn is right up against the line of certain parameters, like humidity, wind speed and temperatures.

“We may want to build a little bit more buffer in there, because we don’t have a perfect understanding of how quickly conditions are changing at this point because of ongoing climate change,” he said.

In April, a Forest Service crew ignited a swath of Santa Fe National Forest land near Hermit’s Peak, north of Las Vegas, N.M., for what was supposed to be a 1,200-acre prescribed burn. In deciding to do so, the agency reviewed temperature and humidity forecasts that were at the very edge of allowable limits.

In addition, a forest administrator, in a form authorizing the burn weeks before it was ignited, wrote that recent snowfall and fuel levels would protect against any escape.

“Although the area is in a drought, we anticipate recent snow events and moist fuel beds will moderate fire behavior,” the administrator wrote, according to a copy of the form provided to Source New Mexico in a public records request, which redacted the administrator’s name.

The fire escaped and then merged with another escaped pile burn, and the combined megafire eventually grew to more than 500 square miles, causing thousands to flee, destroying hundreds of structures and imperiling the watershed serving Las Vegas.

In a report produced to study what went wrong leading up to the botched burn, a team determined the agency discounted the effects of recent drought on the landscape, was understaffed and ill-equipped for an escape, and erroneously undervalued the potential damage from a fire, among other shortcomings.

As the fire grew, residents grew outraged about the Forest Service’s role in starting the fire, and Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham and members of New Mexico’s congressional delegation called for a rethinking of burns on federal land, particularly in the windy season in a drought.

On May 20, Moore announced the review and the pause.

The review comes as the Forest Service plans to greatly increase its thinning and burning regime, an effort to counteract a century of mismanagement and protect forests from high-intensity and devastating fires.

Over the next 10 years, the Forest Service is increasing its treatments by up to four times current levels “to match the actual scale of the wildfire risk,” Moore said in a recent statement about the review.

Hurteau said that he’s not only worried about the results of the review. He also laments the lost burning season in areas that don’t have the same risk as the Southwest, like the Pacific Northwest.

“They lost a burn window, which could have been a good one,” he said.

Take Nevada, for example. In June, Hurteau was there doing research when the United States Park Service, which was not subject to the ban, ignited a 750-acre prescribed burn on the other side of a ridge in Sequoia National Park. But the pause meant that a nearly identical area that happened to be on Forest Service Land did not get the necessary burn treatment, he said.

“If the conditions were such that on the next ridge over the Park Service was burning,” he said, “then the fuel conditions and everything else were the same on the Forestry land, right?”