Legislators in Minnesota and around the country have responded to recent mass shootings by passing laws designed to keep guns out of the hands of people who have mental illnesses and might be dangerous.
Experts say most people with mental illness are nonviolent. Still, each year in Minnesota, dozens of people accused of committing gun-related crimes are evaluated to determine if they are mentally competent enough to stand trial.
While court cases that involve gun offenders with mental illness are rare, such cases show how difficult it can be to keep someone who shouldn’t have a gun from getting one.
Mental health professionals say people with mental illness are no more likely to use guns to commit crimes than anyone else, a conclusion reflected in state courts data.
Between 2008 and 2012, prosecutors filed 6,917 gun-related charges in Minnesota courts. Some of the cases involved people accused of multiple offenses. However, only 3 percent of those gun-related charges, or 211, involved people suspected of being mentally ill.
In those cases, judges will order defendants to undergo a mental health assessment to determine if they are competent to stand trial, a process governed by Minnesota’s Rule 20 law.
Among those ordered to submit to an assessment was Nhan Tran of Oakdale, Minn.
Police say Tran, 34, stood near an intersection in February and fired several shots from a 9mm pistol at passing cars. One of the bullets struck 9-year-old Devin Aryal, who was sitting in a minivan with his mother. Aryal died in his mother’s arms.
A Washington County District Court judge determined Tran is not competent to stand trial for second-degree murder, a decision that suspended Tran’s criminal trial. The judge sent him to the Minnesota Security Hospital in St. Peter, while a civil commitment process is started, according to Assistant Washington County Attorney Fred Fink. After six months of treatment, Tran will undergo another competency test, Fink said.
“What the psychologist goes through is whether the defendant understands what the defense attorney’s function is, what the judge’s function is, what the prosecutor’s function is (and) whether he understands the basics of the proceedings,” Fink said. “It’s a fairly rudimentary analysis.”
If Tran is found competent, his trial will resume. If he is not, the trial will remained suspended.
A tough case to make
Tran’s case illustrates how difficult it can be for mental health professionals, lawmakers and law enforcers to keep guns out of the hands of people with mental illness who may be dangerous.
Members of Tran’s family have said they’ve tried for years to convince Tran to get some help, but they say he didn’t think he needed it.
It can be very difficult to force an adult to get treatment, said Paul Reitman, a psychologist who has conducted civil commitment examinations for the courts since 1984. He said parents often need to ask a court to name them the legal guardians of their adult children to place them in treatment programs.
Reitman said people with paranoid delusions sometimes obtain guns to protect themselves from anyone they think is stalking them. People charged with using a gun to threaten others, he said, often are acting out on their delusions.
Reitman said people experiencing paranoid delusions might buy or borrow guns before they show signs of illness, and undiagnosed or untreated disorders can become more severe with age.
Reitman said the presence of a gun in the home of a person being treated for mental illness is not enough for a judge to order the person committed. That was the case with an Aitkin County man in his late 50s, who Reitman described as severely delusional — and also owned a gun.
“You can use your logic and say, ‘He is mentally ill, he has a gun, he could be a danger.’ But you have to have more of some type of an act,” Reitman said. “So he was committed because he was mentally ill and not taking his medicine — not because he owned a weapon.”
Children and teenagers can also show signs of mental illness, Reitman said, adding that early detection and treatment are the best ways to prevent people from eventually hurting themselves or others.
Gaps in the system
Some experts, however, say Minnesota’s mental health treatment system has been underfunded for years.
Assistant Hennepin County Attorney Carolyn Peterson, a prosecutor since 1993, said she’s seen an increase in the number of defendants who undergo Rule 20 competency exams.
“Based over what I’ve seen in the last 10 years, it’s really a lack of resources in the community,” said Peterson, who specializes in such cases. “I don’t think there are many more halfway house-type programs now than when I first started.”
Hennepin County, the state’s most populous, has a crucial need for programs to help people who don’t meet the criteria for commitment, but still need treatment, Hennepin County Judge Jay Quam said.
“There’s quite a few people, roughly 25 percent, who get referred to the mental health commitment court as incompetent who are not committed,” he said.
Quam, who heads Hennepin County’s Mental Health Probate Court, said to receive a commitment order, prosecutors need to show that the person poses danger to themselves or others — and many don’t.
“In other words, they don’t meet the commitment standard,” he said. “We call it a Rule 20 gap.”
There are also gaps in the system set up to prevent people who the courts have ordered detained under civil commitment from buying firearms.
The National Instant Criminal Background Check System used by law enforcement and licensed gun dealers to screen potential gun buyers is missing records from more than 60,000 civil commitments carried out in Minnesota courts before 2010.
Another problem is that in Minnesota a person can buy a gun from a non-licensed dealer without undergoing any background check.
During the legislative session that just ended, state lawmakers tried and failed to expand background checks to include private sales.
However, they did pass legislation to add the missing civil commitment records to the system. Legislators also approved several million dollars to fund grants for mental health programs in Minnesota schools.
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