Dangerous consequences: Preserve a mental health patient’s gun rights, or protect the public?


BOLIVAR, Mo. — Before he turned 21, Blaec Lammers had seen the inside of mental health facilities at least seven times.

One of those visits stemmed from following an employee for two hours at the Bolivar Wal-Mart wearing a Halloween mask and wielding a butcher knife.

None of that stopped that same supercenter from selling the 20-year-old a pair of AR-15-style, semi-automatic rifles in November 2012. Lammers was not in the National Instant Criminal Background Check System deployed to deny the wrong people access to firearms.

So on March 20, after being convicted Jan. 31 of harboring thoughts of using those semi-automatic weapons to spray bullets inside that very Wal-Mart, Lammers was sentenced to 15 years in prison for first-degree assault and armed criminal action. The convictions are being appealed.

After the sentencing, Tricia Lammers emotionally said her son was victimized because he was born different and that he needs help, not prison.

Their story illuminates the country’s ongoing struggle to balance privacy and gun rights against public and patient safety.

Missouri law says a gun cannot be sold to anyone “currently adjudged mentally incompetent.” Kansas denies to any “mentally ill person.” Federal law says a gun buyer cannot be “adjudicated as a mental defective.”

Exactly when is that?

Under current laws, the conditions and behaviors of Blaec Lammers, and many others who could be a danger to themselves and others, do not rise to that level. Technically, a person under guardianship for being incapable of cleaning his apartment may go to a gun store and buy a 12-gauge, 12-slug Street Sweeper shotgun.

Although the number of mentally ill who are a potential threat is very small, recent history says they can make very big headlines.

President Barack Obama used his executive powers in January to relax tough health privacy rules so more of the mentally ill can be put into NICS.

Those privacy rules, along with anti-gun control sentiment, make many states reluctant to add the names of many of the mentally ill to NICS.

While tending to blame the nation’s too-frequent massacres — seven in the past seven years in which more than 10 people were killed — on “a mental health system that is completely broken,” the NRA leadership takes a hard line that only those committed to an institution by a judge are too ill to be armed. Missouri and Kansas statutes concur.

In past generations, thousands who had committed no crime were held in those state wards. But attitudes about “warehousing” the mentally troubled away from society have changed, and treatments have come to rely more on behavior-changing prescriptions.

Now, however, many close to the system think the pendulum has swung too far and under tight state funding, too few slots are available to help those who need more and perhaps much longer treatment.

“The way I see it the state of Missouri has just walked away from providing care and treatment for the most dangerous of the mentally ill by downsizing and privatizing,” said Rebbecca Lake Wood, chief of the Jackson County Public Administrator’s Office, which deals with more than 1,000 wards. “It’s a train wreck.”

The NICS system is only as good as the state databases that feed it. In Missouri’s case, the names gathered by the Highway Patrol’s Criminal Justice Information Services must be accompanied by fingerprints, but people like Lammers are rarely fingerprinted in the mental health system.

That only happens after they’ve committed a crime.

So Lammers — now a felon for a plot based on his being allowed to buy rifles — will be in the NICS system.

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Lammers’ 2012 arrest in this town about 130 miles southeast of Kansas City ricocheted across news services around the world.

It came a few months after the July 20 shooting that killed a dozen and wounded 70 Batman fans at an Aurora, Colo., cinema.

The Bolivar B&B Theater was about to show another blockbuster, “Breaking Dawn: Part 2,” when Lammers’ mother found the receipt for an assault rifle in her son’s laundry and called police.

Lammers paid about $400 for a Smith & Wesson M&P15-22 on Nov. 12. The next day, he went back to the Wal-Mart and spent $865 for the slightly larger but much more deadly .223-caliber Windham WW15, one of the many versions of the AR-15, and ammunition.

But while Tricia and Bill Lammers believe they did the right thing, they are appalled at how the authorities and media reacted.

Polk County Prosecutor Ken Ashlock, in his opening trial arguments, called their son “a person who wanted to be noticed, a person who wanted to replay some of the most horrible events in recent history.”

At first, officials theorized the troubled youth might have contemplated opening fire at the latest “Twilight” vampire movie. But police said his thinking had turned back to the Wal-Mart. The idea, allegedly, was to blast his way through the mayhem to the store’s sporting department where he could replenish his ammo.

Defense attorney Donald Cooley has argued doggedly that no crime was committed, other than in the minds of the Bolivar police. When they interrogated Lammers, he might not have understood he could have a lawyer present.

“They had a scenario and did a very good job really of telling him what they thought he was going to do,” the Springfield attorney said in an interview. “They had a story. It was not Blaec’s story. It was their story.”

No one disputes that Lammers’ behavior began deteriorating after his 16th birthday. In Omaha, Neb., where the Lammerses lived before moving to Bolivar in 2009, Lammers was expelled from school for talking about putting a pipe bomb under the car of a teacher who woke him in class.

Then came the 2009 knife incident — interrupted by Lammers’ father — which resulted in a maximum 96-hour hold at a private mental health facility, but no charges. Longer than that, according to the law, a hearing must be scheduled to begin the commitment process.

Two years ago, Lammers got 30 days in Polk County Jail for hitting a co-worker’s head at a shop with a gate hinge swung on a piece of rope. In an interview, Ashlock said Lammers wanted to know what it felt like to hit the other man. The family acknowledged they had discussed getting a handgun for Tricia Lammers’ protection.

A court-ordered assessment said Blaec Lammers had a personality disorder, a condition that Polk County Judge William Roberts said was exactly the same diagnosis “for the majority of the people I’ve sent to the state penitentiary.”

It was just one more that the Lammers family had heard over the years, many of which they don’t accept: Asperger’s syndrome (now classified as a milder form on the autism spectrum), antisocial personality disorder, bipolar, an undefined schizophrenia. Described as shy, Blaec Lammers also struggles with dyslexia and, not surprisingly, depression.

In all, Lammers has had four (one of them involuntary) 96-hour holds at mental health facilities, consented to a several-month hospital stay and a couple of shorter visits.

“They give him a 30-minute interview, and he’s back home,” said Bill Lammers, often with powerful new drugs to try out.

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It’s not often that the National Rifle Association and Mother Jones magazine seem to see eye to eye.

The liberal magazine looked at more than 60 mass shootings in recent decades and found that 38 of the gunmen previously had exhibited abnormal mental health symptoms.

NRA Executive Vice President Wayne LaPierre has blamed many cases of gun violence on “some psychotic who should have been locked up long ago.”

But while his powerful organization calls for more long-term commitments for those deemed dangerous by the courts, it also contends that using the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders as a threshold for gun ownership is “an outrageously broad standard that would affect the rights of countless Americans.”

Five of the conditions suggested by various mental health professionals who have seen Lammers are listed in that manual.

“It’s a revolving door,” Bill Lammers said of the underfunded mental health system. “Get them, treat them, get them out, because there is a line waiting. The game is get them out. That’s the only way you show a profit.”

Which people with mental disorders are red-lighted by the NICS is largely a matter of what the states wish to upload on the federal system.

It’s the Highway Patrol that forwards the names of Missourians who have been sentenced to at least a year in the state’s prisons or, in the cases of the mentally ill, involuntarily committed to a mental institution for the legally prescribed periods of 21 days, 90 days or a year.

The threshold for that is often whether a person is a danger to themselves or others.

Any number of 96-hour holds for violent behavior, however, will not register with the patrol’s databank. In Missouri and most other states, it doesn’t come close to the “mental defective” threshold to keep guns out of the hands of a disturbed person.

Almost none will end up in the NICS register because the Missouri databank is fingerprint based; every name turned over by a court must be accompanied by a set of whorls and loops.

“Fingerprinting is pretty intrusive but if that’s the only way,” mused Wood, of the Jackson County Public Administrator’s Office. “They shouldn’t have access to guns.”

“It should be situational,” Bill Lammers said. “If someone has been seven or eight times to a mental facility, something has to trigger that this person has been receiving mental health care and probably is not a good candidate for obtaining a gun.”

The Educational Fund to Stop Gun Violence agrees those holds should be taken seriously, certainly the involuntary ones, which was the case with Lammers once.

“Those holds should be gun prohibitory, not permanent, but at least for five years. We know that when you get out of the hospital, it’s a time of increased risk of violence,” said Josh Horwitz, fund director.

Lammers said they had “kicked around” the idea of a guardianship for his son, but it seemed like a big step. It would have meant legally taking away the young adult’s right to make many life choices on his own.

“A lot of people feel they are ill-equipped,” acknowledged Wood. “It’s a difficult system to navigate. It’s not a happy situation.”

Ultimately, it might not have changed a thing.

While some wards of guardians are put on the path to treatment, the most serious cases, seen as dangerous, may end up in a nursing home or state facility.

Wood recalled one heavily armed paranoid who had turned his apartment into a bunker and that she and her staff considered “a massacre waiting to happen.” He was treated and ended up doing well in a group home. Wood said her office confiscates and sells the firearms of her wards, with the proceeds put in an account for the ward’s benefit.

“I had a gentlemen adjudicated as requiring a guardian who was found to be demented and an alcoholic with multiple DUI convictions. He had a concealed-carry permit.”

Although the man is locked away in a private nursing home now, she could not get his permit revoked under Missouri statutes.

“We have a system that we know is lousy, and we don’t do anything about it, which is intentional,” Wood said.

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Some states are more proactive when it comes to keeping weapons out of the hands of the mentally ill.

Hawaii law is among the most aggressive, prohibiting gun possession after a diagnosis of a “significant behavioral, emotional, or mental disorder.”

Illinois lets designated mental health professionals, school administrators or law enforcement officers step in when a clear and imminent risk of serious physical injury to self or another exists or when the person is threatening physical or verbal behavior.

California law is triggered by being held 72 hours for treatment as a danger to self or others, either within the last five years; or when a licensed psychotherapist hears a serious threat of violence against an identifiable individual.

In 2012, the Connecticut legislature defeated a bill that would have allowed the state to institutionalize a person if that institutionalization could prevent them from harming others. In December of that year, Adam Lanza’s mother reportedly was seeking to have her son committed when he killed her with one of her own guns.

Then the 20-year-old walked into Newtown’s Sandy Hook Elementary School with an AR-15, killing 20 children and six staff members before shooting himself.

The NRA website says that letting a psychiatrist, family doctor or county sheriff restrict a patient’s access to guns is a violation of constitutional due process.

Already alarmed by Colorado’s stricter gun controls passed in the wake of the Aurora shootings, the NRA successfully fought an effort to create a task force to review the issue. The gun lobby claimed the task force would be heavily skewed toward gun control. The NRA was contacted for this story and given questions, but did not respond.

One of the NRA’s arguments gets traction with the American Psychiatric Association, that the potential loss of gun rights would discourage people from seeking mental health treatment.

“There’s something to that,” said Allen Rostron, a University of Missouri-Kansas City law professor. “If just seeing a psychiatrist could possibly get somebody disqualified then they might say, ‘I just won’t go, then.’ “

He also hears concerns about the rights of the mentally ill and unfair stereotyping, especially when it comes to veterans.

“They come back from the wars with PTSD and get classified as disabled,” Rostron said. “There’s a feeling these guys should not be losing their gun rights.”

Civil libertarians worry that more reporting of mental health data to NICS could be improperly used by other government agencies.

“It would be unfair to have their medical history prominently displayed in some kind of government database,” Wood said. “We also have, as a culture, a love of guns so we are loath to restrict people’s access to a weapon. So we have very little motivation to intrude on the right of privacy or the right to bear arms.”

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Since late 1998, the FBI says, NICS has handled more than 185 million checks and denied more than 1 million would-be gun buyers.

Only 13,638 were denied because of adjudicated mental health reasons. The database now has more than 1.2 million mental health records, up from about 200,000 in 2004.

Missouri and Kansas are among the 22 states that submit mental health information to the NICS Index through the Mental Defective File and the Denied Persons File. “Most states have made little or no progress in providing these records,” according to a July 2013 GAO report.

Even Hawaii, with its tough gun restrictions, only sent one (probably a system test), in part because of its very strict medical privacy laws.

Efforts to strengthen NICS followed the 2007 Virginia Tech shooting, when Seung-Hui Cho killed 32 people and wounded 17 others before turning the gun on himself.

The young man had been diagnosed with severe social anxiety disorder and selective mutism in his younger years, but it was his disturbing behavior on the college campus (antisocial behavior, outbursts in class and talk of suicide) that resulted in a court-ordered mental health treatment on an outpatient basis.

But outpatient care did not register on the state’s background check system. Two years later, he bought the two semi-automatic handguns for his rampage.

A law to beef up the NICS was signed by President George W. Bush. One of the executive orders advocated by Obama would clarify the definition of “mental defective” by including court-ordered outpatient treatment as a disqualifier and also put on record any such court-ordered mental remedies that occurred before 18.

“There’s a lot more court order outpatient commitments these days, so that’s important,” said Horwitz at the Stop Gun Violence group.

Another order would ease federal HIPAA medical privacy rules so states will feel more comfortable putting the seriously mentally ill in the background check system.

“I think that it was a really good thing that the White House did this, because it clears the way or takes away the excuse for not uploading those records to NICS,” said Brian Malte, national policy director for the Brady Center, one of that nation’s best known gun-control advocacy organizations.

The Brady Center recently stepped into another Missouri case involving a seriously schizophrenic woman and her purchase of a firearm that she allegedly used to kill her father. In that case, too, the patient’s mother tried to stop a tragedy, in this case asking an Odessa pawn shop not to sell the daughter a weapon.

“Ultimately, firearms dealers and their employees are the final gatekeepers — the eyes on the ground,” said a release from the Brady Center.

Before stalking off at the mention of the Brady Center, an employee at the Off the Wall Firearms store in Garden City, Mo., said he has refused to sell weapons to would-be customers who seem incoherent and with alcohol on their breath.

Scoffed Cooley, Lammers’ defense attorney: “I have a great difficulty with a somebody making $10 a hour at Wal-Mart making some kind of psychological assessment on whether somebody should have a gun.

“I think it would be impossible to establish a standard to be used that would protect a person’s rights under the Second Amendment.”

Caught in the middle of the debate are cases like Lammers’. After 16 months in jail without his medications, his father says, Lammers has changed. “He’s calm, the kid we haven’t seen in 10 years.”

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