Could a red flag law have stopped the Lakewood Church shooting?

Police on the scene of the Lakewood Church shooting  (© 2024 Karen Warren / Staff photographer)
Police on the scene of the Lakewood Church shooting (© 2024 Karen Warren / Staff photographer)

“A completely preventable horror.”

This is how the Lakewood Church shooter’s former mother-in-law described the shooting which rocked Joel Osteen’s megachurch and the Houston community this weekend.

Genesse Moreno, the 36-year-old woman identified as the shooter, entered the megachurch on Sunday afternoon with her seven-year-old son and opened fire.

Two off-duty police officers fired back, fatally shooting Moreno. Moreno’s young son was also struck by gunfire and is currently fighting for his life in hospital.

In the days since, information has increasingly emerged about Moreno’s mental health and criminal history – raising questions around whether something could have been done to have prevented the shooting.

Moreno went to the church armed with two guns – an AR-15 rifle, which she used in the shooting, and a .22 calibre rifle.

Police said she had legally purchased the AR-15 rifle in December 2023 — despite the fact that court records show that in 2022, she was arrested for a weapons misdemeanour charge.

Officers in Texas’ Wise County also allegedly took a gun from Moreno in January 2020 after responding to reports of a domestic dispute between her and her then-husband, The New York Times reported. However, the gun was returned to her one month later.

On top of this arrest — and numerous other arrests not related to firearms — police said that Moreno had a “documented” history of mental health struggles. Court records, and family comments, also suggest the same.

In divorce records obtained by ABC13, Moreno’s husband wrote she “is a diagnosed schizophrenic, so daily it was a new battle or fight in her realm”. In these records, her husband also accused Moreno of becoming “abusive” soon after they married.

Her ex mother-in-law also told KHOU that Moreno “had a particular kind of schizophrenia that caused her to become violent...She threatened her husband, my own son, and we still couldn’t get intervention.”

She continued: “We asked for help from CPS... We asked for help from police and received it many times but she was still allowed to own guns.”

In the couple’s divorce proceeding records, Moreno’s mother-in-law also claimed that in January 2020, she had “pulled an unlocked and loaded gun from underneath a seat in the car and pointed it at the head” of her husband, “only hours after a first unlocked and loaded handgun was found” by their then-three-year-old son “in his own diaper bag”.

While more details continue to emerge as the investigation continues, all eyes are turning to Texas’ lax gun laws – particularly the state’s absence of red flag laws.

Gun safety advocates are raising the question as to whether red flag laws — also known as extreme risk protection orders — could have prevented the shooting.

Across the US, 21 states have enacted red flag laws, which allow for law enforcement — or family members or health professionals, in some states — to intervene if someone shows signs that they are a danger to themselves or others. A court can temporarily take away the individual’s guns or prevent them from buying one.

The issue is, in Texas, there is no red flag law.

Genesse Moreno in mug shot (Supplied)
Genesse Moreno in mug shot (Supplied)

Tanya Schardt, director of state and federal policy at gun safety group Brady told The Independent: “Based on news reports, the shooting at the Lakewood Church in Texas is yet another example of a shooting that may have been prevented if an extreme risk law had been in effect.

“Extreme risk laws are a life-saving tool...It is imperative that there be a process to remove firearms in these types of circumstances.”

Nick Suplina, Senior Vice President of Law & Policy at Everytown for Gun Safety, echoed this.

“Like so many tragedies, this could have been prevented with a Red Flag law in place,” he said.

“While we’re still learning more, it’s clear that this individual displayed troubling warning signs. Research proves that Red Flag laws work, and Texas lawmakers should listen to the vast majority of Texans who support common sense gun safety legislation and take immediate action to prevent future tragedies.”

Texas State Rep Gene Wu wrote on X after the Lakewood Church shooting happened: “This is WHY we need RED FLAG laws! Every single person in the Lakewood shooter’s life thought that there’s no way she should have ever been allowed to buy a gun. But Texas law allowed her. Republicans made sure of it.”

The shooter’s own family has also blamed the lack of gun control in the state of Texas.

In a lengthy social media post – at a time when she is hoping and praying that her seven-year-old grandson survives – Moreno’s former mother-in-law blasted the state’s gun policies, blaming Texas “for not having strong red flag laws that would have prevented (Moreno) from owning or possessing a gun”.

Had there been a red flag law, Moreno might have been prevented from purchasing an AR-15 in December 2023 — just two months before she opened fire with that very same gun in the megachurch.

When loved ones or law enforcement officials file a petition asking a court to intervene, the judge will consider a few risk factors. These risk factors, according to gun safety groups, often include a pattern or recent threats of violence, history of dangerous behaviour with firearms, substance abuse, or recent firearm acquisition.

Aside from substance abuse, Moreno’s behaviour appears to fit these risk factors to a tee: Her recent acquisition of a gun, her alleged fits of violence reported by family members, and dangerous behaviour with a firearm – such as reportedly threatening her husband or the misdemeanour weapons charge.

Texas Governor Greg Abbott, a Republican who has long enjoyed a close relationship with the NRA, has expressed some interest in tightening gun laws in the past – but has failed to do so.

In 2018, he asked the Texas legislature to consider a red flag law, writing: “Properly designed, emergency risk protective orders could identify those intent on violence from firearms, but in a way that preserves fundamental rights under the Second Amendment.”

But the idea never got much traction in the legislature — with the lieutenant governor explicitly opposed to it.

“Regarding the topic of ‘Red Flag’ laws, which was discussed today in the select committee, I have never supported these policies, nor has the majority of the Texas Senate,” Lt Gov Dan Patrick said in a statement at the time.

He explained that Mr Abbott “formally asked the legislature to consider ‘Red Flag’ laws in May so I added them to the charges I gave to the select committee” and “Gov. Abbott has since said he doesn’t advocate ‘Red Flag’ laws.”

At the end of the legislative session in 2019, Mr Abbott told reporters that he had decided that a red flag law wasn’t necessary in the state “right now”.

This came the same year that his state endured the Walmart shooting — that took the lives of 23 people — and the Odessa shooting — which left seven dead and 19 injured.

Survivors hug after the Lakewood Church shooting (REUTERS)
Survivors hug after the Lakewood Church shooting (REUTERS)

In May 2022, Texans were forced to once again weather another mass shooting. The Uvalde school shooting took the lives of 19 children and two adults.

The families of victims pleaded with Mr Abbott to at least consider bolstering gun laws in the state following the massacre. But, in June of that same year, the Republican governor once again dismissed the possibility of implementing red flag laws.

Instead Mr Abbott blamed mental health.

“We as a state, we as a society, need to do a better job with mental health,” he said, despite the shooter having no documented history of mental health struggles before the attack.

He offered a similar remark in May 2023: “We’ve seen an increased number of shootings in states with easy gun laws as well as states with very strict gun laws. The long-term solution here is to address the mental health issue.”

Despite Texas being home to multiple shootings, the state still has not passed a red flag law. The Independent has reached out to Gov Abbott’s office.

Unlike Mr Abbott, other states have implemented gun safety measures in the wake of mass shootings.

Just this week, Michigan’s red flag law went into effect, on the anniversary of the Michigan State University shooting last year.

In response to the 2018 Parkland school shooting, Florida passed a red flag law, serving as a gun safety oasis in a desert of such measures in the southwest.

Now, the investigation into Moreno and the Lakewood shooting is still ongoing.

The 57-year-old man injured in the shooting is recovering from his injuries at home after being released from the hospital.

And Moreno’s seven-year-old son remains in critical condition, fighting for his life.

But, the Lakewood Church shooting – and the spotlight on the shooter’s past – once again puts pressure on Texas to change its gun laws.