PULASKI, Va. — In May 2009, Sam French hit bottom, once again. A relative found him face down in his carport “talking gibberish,” according to court records. He later told medical personnel that he had been conversing with a bear in his backyard and hearing voices. His family figured he had gone off his medication for bipolar disorder, and a judge ordered him involuntarily committed — the fourth time in five years he had been hospitalized by court order.
When Mr. French’s daughter discovered that her father’s commitment meant it was illegal for him to have firearms, she and her husband removed his cache of 15 long guns and three handguns, and kept them after Mr. French was released in January 2010 on a new regime of mood-stabilizing drugs.
Ten months later, he appeared in General District Court — the body that handles small claims and traffic infractions — to ask a judge to restore his gun rights. After a brief hearing, in which Mr. French’s lengthy history of relapses never came up, he walked out with an order reinstating his right to possess firearms.
The next day, Mr. French retrieved his guns.
“The judge didn’t ask me a whole lot,” said Mr. French, now 62. “He just said: ‘How was I doing? Was I taking my medicine like I was supposed to?’ I said, ‘Yes, sir.’ ”
Across the country, states are increasingly allowing people like Mr. French, who lost their firearm rights because of mental illness, to petition to have them restored.
A handful of states have had such restoration laws on their books for some time, but with little notice, more than 20 states have passed similar measures since 2008. This surge can be traced to a law passed by Congress after the 2007 massacre at Virginia Tech that was actually meant to make it harder for people with mental illness to get guns.
As a condition of its support for the measure, the National Rifle Association extracted a concession: the inclusion of a mechanism for restoring firearms rights to those who lost them for mental health reasons.
The intent of these state laws is to enable people to regain the right to buy and possess firearms if it is determined that they are not a threat to public safety. But an examination of restoration procedures across the country, along with dozens of cases, shows that the process for making that determination is governed in many places by vague standards and few specific requirements.
States have mostly entrusted these decisions to judges, who are often ill-equipped to conduct investigations from the bench. Many seemed willing to simply give petitioners the benefit of the doubt. The results often seem haphazard.
At least a few hundred people with histories of mental health issues already get their gun rights back each year. The number promises to grow, since most of the new state laws are just beginning to take effect. And in November, the Department of Veterans Affairs responded to the federal legislation by establishing a rights restoration process for more than 100,000 veterans who have lost their gun privileges after being designated mentally incompetent by the agency.
The issue goes to the heart of the nation’s complicated relationship with guns, testing the delicate balance between the need to safeguard the public and the dictates of what the Supreme Court has proclaimed to be a fundamental constitutional right.
Mike Fleenor, the commonwealth’s attorney here in Pulaski County, whose office opposed restoring Mr. French’s rights, worries that the balance is being thrown off by weak standards.
“I think that reasonable people can disagree about issues of the Second Amendment and gun control and things like that, but I don’t believe that any reasonable person believes that a mentally ill person needs a firearm,” Mr. Fleenor said. “The public has a right to be safe in their community.”
In case after case examined by The New York Times, judges made decisions without important information about an applicant’s mental health.
Larry Lamb, a Vietnam veteran from San Diego who has suffered from depression and post-traumatic stress disorder, lost his gun rights and his cache of weapons in 2006 when he was involuntarily hospitalized after his dog’s death left him suicidal. A psychiatrist who examined Mr. Lamb wrote that he “is extremely paranoid with a full-blown P.T.S.D., believing that he is still at war in the active military and he is a personal bodyguard of the president and many senators.”
In early 2008, a Superior Court judge in San Diego granted Mr. Lamb’s petition to have his firearms rights restored, after his psychologist testified that he was not dangerous. But the judge, without access to Mr. Lamb’s full medical history, was unaware of a crucial fact: the local Veterans Affairs hospital had placed a “red flag” on Mr. Lamb, barring him from the hospital grounds because he was perceived to be a threat to personnel there.
The spread of these restoration laws is especially striking against the backdrop of the shooting of Representative Gabrielle Giffords of Arizona and others in Tucson early this year by a suspect who has been declared mentally incompetent to stand trial — a case that spotlighted anew the link between mental illness and violence.
Supporters of gun rights and mental health advocates point out that a vast majority of people with mental illness are not violent. At the same time, though, a variety of studies have found that people with serious mental illness are more prone to violence than the general population.
The difficulty of assessing risk emerges in places like Los Angeles, where the Superior Court conducts a relatively thorough review of firearms rights requests. The Times found multiple instances over the last decade in which people who won back their gun rights went on to be charged with or convicted of violent or gun-related crimes, including spousal battery, negligent discharge of a firearm or assault with a firearm.
Then there are the nightmare cases — like that of Ryan Anthony, 35, a former Emmy Award-winning animator at Disney who was involuntarily hospitalized in mid-2001 after losing his job and separating from his wife. Mr. Anthony filed a petition to get back his gun rights in early 2002, telling a court-appointed psychiatrist that he wanted to go skeet shooting.
A few weeks after the court granted his petition, Mr. Anthony bought a Remington 870 12-gauge shotgun, holed up in a Holiday Inn in Burbank, Calif., and committed suicide.
Sunday, July 3, 2011
The intro to the story in The NY Times. In the picture, Bobby Bullion, showing how he carries a gun in his truck, got his rights back with a doctor's endorsement.
Posted by BA Haller at 11:51 AM