Gun laws vague in mental health cases

The death of a Yellow Springs man during a prolonged shootout with police last month has raised concerns about the justice system’s capacity to keep dangerous weapons out of the hands of those who could be a danger to themselves or the community.

Those who have been convicted of felony offenses under Ohio law are prohibited from owning firearms, but a Dayton Daily News examination found the law is vague when it comes to people with a history of mental illness.

Ohio law prohibits anyone who is, “drug dependent, in danger of drug dependence, or a chronic alcoholic,” from owning a gun as well as anyone who has been adjudicated as mentally incompetent or involuntarily committed for mental health treatment.

Paul E. Schenck, 42, didn’t fall under any of those restrictions despite a previous incident with police that prompted the temporary seizure of numerous firearms. When dispatchers sent police to his residence, 280 N. High St., on the morning of July 31, there was no background information available about Schenck’s 2009 arrest for pulling a gun on an officer.

Some question if more should be done to help protect police and innocent bystanders.

Clark County Sheriff Gene Kelly said it can be frustrating. “We can hold them (guns) for safekeeping, we can hold them for a court order. But once a protection order is lifted, you have to give them back,” he said.

Schenck was convicted of misdemeanor obstructing official business in that 2009 incident, but Greene County Common Pleas Court records from that case are sealed. Police said they confiscated more than 20 rifles, several handguns, ammo and body armor. Those guns were reportedly returned to Schenck following a court order about a year later.

“Based on what I knew about him, I was concerned,” Former Yellow Springs Police Chief John Grote said.“Paul was generally a nice guy. He seemed to be overly interested in weapons and always wanted to talk about guns with me.”

Police can seize an individual’s weapons if a crime is committed, if there is a threat of domestic violence or a court granted protection order in place, or if an individual is “pink-slipped”, which means a 72-hour mental health evaluation.

But Montgomery County Sheriff Phil Plummer said law enforcement has very little say in whether someone is permanently prohibited from having weapons and cannot do random checks on those under disability.

In 2008, Harrison Twp. resident Gregory Smith was arrested by deputies after threatening to kill himself and neighbors. Prohibited from owning firearms because of a previous conviction, Smith initially pleading not guilty by reason of insanity, but took a plea deal in which he was sentenced to undergo mental health treatment. Deputies seized numerous guns including a .50-caliber ArmaLite rifle.

Plummer said officers have limited resources or authority to check up on people who are legally barred from having guns. “We can’t go knocking down doors,” he said.

“You can have 100 people who say this guy shouldn’t have a gun because he’s crazy, but he hasn’t been convicted of a felony and he hasn’t been committed,” said Montgomery County Sheriff’s Sgt. M.D. Hutchison.

The Deputy Suzanne Hopper Act is intended to aid law enforcement by making more information about an individual’s mental health history available. But many questions remain about how the database created by the newly enacted legislation will be populated.

Under the new law, police will have better mental health information on about 600 people statewide.

“But there are many, many more like this gentleman in Yellow Springs,” Kelly said. “There is no central repository of mental health records.”

Nearly 62 percent of gun deaths are suicides while 35 percent are homicides, according to 2010 CDC data.

Mental health professionals say the challenge is preventing tragedies without perpetuating the stigma of mental illness.

“It’s an erroneous perception that people who are mentally ill are more violent than anyone else,” said Ryan Peirson, chief clinical officer for Montgomery County Alcohol, Drug Addiction and Mental Health Services (ADAMHS). “However, that being said, the best predictor of behavior is past behavior.”

Schenck had pulled a gun on police in the past and had conversations with Grote about his frustrations with life and with police officers.

“I was concerned about Paul getting the guns back,” Grote said.

The very situation he feared occurred last month. Shots were fired at three Yellow Springs officers on High Street who were dispatched on a medical call. A total of 63 law enforcement units responded.

The Ohio Attorney General’s Office Bureau of Criminal Investigation collected 191 shell casings from inside Schenck’s house. Investigators counted at least 107 bullet holes exiting the home.

It is unknown whether Schenck ever had a mental health evaluation. Grote couldn’t recall, but he noted that given the circumstances in 2009 it wouldn’t be uncommon for the court to require one.

Grote said more tax dollars need to be spent on mental health diagnosis and increased efforts to get rid of the stigma associated with mental illness.

“We have to strike a good balance between helping people and not sticking them with a stigma,” said Jamestown resident Larry Moore, a regional leader with the Buckeye Firearms Association.

He said the fear of being labeled crazy and having guns seized could deter people from seeking help.

“We have to be aware that that confidentiality is there so that people will go get help without fear that it will haunt them later,” he said.

Moore pointed out that people who may be a danger to themselves or others at one point in their life could become responsible gun owners after proper treatment. He also noted that guns are not the only weapons which an individual can be prohibited from owning.

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