Gun control proponents have been fighting for tougher laws related to the sale of guns for decades. One major sticking point that almost everyone, except the NRA, can agree on is that the mentally ill should not have access to guns. But what does "mentally ill" mean? Do they have to have a criminal record? A serious medical diagnosis? Who reports this mental illness to the background check companies? ATF? Police? And what qualifies as a mental illness severe enough to be denied a gun? Depression? Schizophrenia? Bipolar? What if they are medicated and fully functioning? Would that allow them to purchase/own a gun? What if they go off their medicine? Who takes the gun back?
So many questions, but the idea has always been to try to err on the side of caution. Or, that was the hope. Gun shows always find loopholes and many stores/retailers circumvent the whole background check thing. And, just a few weeks ago, the House of Representatives killed an Obama era gun rule specifically designed to keep guns away from the mentally ill.
So what actually happens when a mentally ill person gets a gun? Hopefully, nothing. But often, something does happen. Maybe they commit suicide. Maybe the threaten people. Maybe they get self destructive and shoot things.
Sometimes it is even more tragic.
In Wellington, Missouri, a truly awful story unfolded back in 2012. A mother desperately called the ATF, the police and the local gun shop to warn them about her mentally ill daughter in the hopes of preventing her from buying a gun again. The Washington Post shared her painful story of mental illness, desperation, death and a family torn apart by one bullet.
A bullet that could have been prevented.
Janet Delana knew her daughter was a danger to herself and others. In and out of hospitals after a diagnosis of paranoid schizophrenia, she struggled on medication, was barely functioning and showed dramatic signs of impairment. She survived on disability insurance and was being cared for by her parents.
Just a month before, she bought a gun and had tried to kill herself. Her father, Janet's husband, took the gun away. But her next month's disability check was coming and her mom knew that she would probably try to buy a gun again. Desperate, she made phone calls to try to stop the disaster.
She called Odessa Gun & Pawn, the pawn shop where Colby, her daughter, had last bought a gun, and pleaded:
“I’m begging you,” Delana said through tears. “I’m begging you as a mother, if she comes in, please don’t sell her a gun.”
The store owner was not swayed and when Colby came in, he sold her a Hi-Point pistol and one box of ammunition for $257.85.
Total profit for the store: $60.00.
Colby went home. She loaded the gun. She walked in and saw her dad sitting at the computer with his back to her. She shot him as he sat, unaware.
She killed her father.
Delana lost her husband. She tried valiantly to prevent it from happening but the store did not heed her warnings. Delana said:
“After everything I did, they still sold her a gun. The more I thought about it, the madder I got. I wanted someone to pay.”
So she sued Odessa Gun & Pawn shop for negligence in the June 2012. The Washington Post reports that the "Missouri Supreme Court that said that nothing in federal law barred Delana’s type of lawsuit. Under state law, the court ruled that dealers can be held liable if they should have known a buyer was dangerous. Last fall, with a trial set to start in January in the wrongful-death case, the gun shop settled with Delana, saying it had followed the law and done nothing wrong."
This story is particularly heartbreaking because this family not only tried to get help for their daughter, but actively tried to prevent this tragedy from occurring. They are not gun control advocates, in fact they owned guns and were supporters of legal ownership.
What they didn't want was for their daughter, someone who was severely mentally ill and suicidal/homicidal, to get a gun. They did everything right. And the gun sale laws failed them. Now, a person is a dead.
The gun shop owner tried to justify it's actions by saying in a deposition: “I can’t just go by what a phone call says. If the person that comes in . . . passes the background check, I can sell them a gun.”
He settled with Delana for $2.2 million dollars.
This type of settlement is a significant victory for gun control advocates who want to change the way in which gun sellers/manufacturers can be held accountable for when their products are used.
Jonathan E. Lowy, the legal director from the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence, argued Delana’s case said the following: This type of case sends a “powerful message to the gun industry nationwide, and to the companies that insure them, that if you supply a dangerous person with a gun, you will pay the price.”
There are similar cases pending in numerous states. This case, horrific as it is, may open up new legal avenues for victims of crimes to pursue action against gun manufacturers and sellers who knowingly allow the mentally ill to purchase firearms, regardless of the background check laws.