You can’t take a gun away from someone who is coming apart

Even if you’re involuntarily committed, you don’t have to give up guns you already own.
5 min. read

Police and people who knew Mickey Russell describe a man who was increasingly disturbed in the weeks before he came to Denver and shot and killed his wife, Cara Russell, who had filed for divorce.

But nothing in Colorado law would have stopped Russell from buying a gun or would have allowed anyone to take away any guns he already owned.

There is something I should say here, before I go any further: Most gun violence has nothing to do with mental illness. And we don't know and probably will never fully know whether mental illness or simple anger played the greater role in Mickey Russell's decision to kill his wife. He shot and killed himself after shooting Cara Russell multiple times, and we can't ask him what he was thinking.

But we know Mickey Russell was not doing well. The Chaffee County sheriff said he threatened to fly a plane into a building. He was barred from the Central Colorado Regional Airport. Cara Russell warned her friend, airport manager Jill Van Deel, that her husband was angry over the ban. Cara Russell was worried for them both.

At some point, according to Denver police, Mickey Russell was placed on a mental health hold.

What exactly is a mental health hold?

This happens when someone does or says something that makes them seem like a danger to themselves or other people or when they appear "gravely disabled" by their mental health condition.

Licensed social workers and therapists, doctors, nurses and police officers can place someone on a hold. They're taken to a hospital or psychiatric facility where another evaluator will ask whether the person has a plan to carry through on threats, whether they have the means, whether they have a reason to follow through.

But some people lie or manipulate, said Bethany Blankenheim, a licensed professional counselor with In-Depth Therapy in Broomfield, and there isn't always a lot that can be done. Hospitals don't have the resources to do a lot of outside investigation. When she places a patient on a hold, Blankenheim can follow up and provide history and context for whatever the person is saying now. When police bring someone in because they're making threats, that doesn't necessarily happen.

Blankenheim has no inside knowledge about Russell's situation, but she was kind enough to explain the hold process to me.

Many people get referred to treatment and stabilize and return to the community with a plan in place to better maintain their mental health. But at the end of 72 hours, if they don't meet the criteria for continued involuntary commitment -- and that's a high bar -- they can discharge themselves even against doctor's recommendations for further treatment.

"They can say, 'I was just angry,' or "I was just talking out of turn,'" Blankenheim said. "It's not a perfect system."

Being placed on a hold has no effect on your ability to own guns.

And while having been involuntarily committed by a court means you can't buy a gun, you can still keep any guns you already own.

"If one has been adjudicated as mentally ill under federal law, you cannot give someone a gun and you cannot sell them a gun in most situations, but if they have a gun, there is no requirement that they relinquish it," Boulder District Attorney Stan Garnett said.

In that regard, Colorado is like most states, said Ari Freilich, staff attorney at the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence.

It was only in 2013 that Colorado adopted legislation requiring people who have been convicted of domestic violence offenses to give up their guns. Many other "prohibited persons" can't pass a background check to buy guns but can keep any guns they have.

"It would surprise you how bare-bones many gun laws are," Freilich said.

Freilich reiterated that most gun violence is not related to mental illness, but sometimes a person is doing or saying things that make everyone around them worried about what they might do.

California has two provisions that give people some recourse.

When someone is placed on a mental health hold, they are banned from owning or buying guns for five years, and they have to give up any guns they already have.

And friends and family members, as well as police and mental health professionals, can go to court and petition to make someone relinquish their guns and bar them from buying new ones, even in the absence of a criminal conviction or involuntary commitment.

There are due process protections, Freilich said, including a hearing before a judge, who must find there is clear and convincing evidence the person represents a danger before ordering the person to relinquish their weapons.

The law just went into effect this year. As such, it hasn't been used that much, Freilich said, but it creates a protection that didn't exist before.

"It underscores the idea that there are individuals that we know to be dangerous, so California law allows family members to petition the court," he said. "It's a promising model to give people a new tool."

California adopted gun violence restraining orders after the Isla Vista shooting, in which the perpetrators' parents saw clear warning signs of violence.

Garnett said there have been discussions of adopting similar provisions in Colorado, but it's an uphill battle.

"In the political climate we have, even the most reasonable discussion of the issues we have with firearms provokes really passionate responses that makes it hard to have a problem-solving discussion," he said.

Assistant Editor Erica Meltzer can be reached via email at [email protected] or on Twitter @meltzere. Subscribe to Denverite's newsletter here.

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