In his last three years, Joseph Jones of Nebraska was repeatedly sent to psychiatric hospitals because of schizophrenia and delusions that a drug cartel was after him. He lay down on a Kansas highway because he wanted to be run over by a truck. Officers tackled him as he ran in front of vehicles. Time and time again, his family and the police took away his guns.
Jones was able to keep buying firearms and law enforcement could do little. Once a deputy returned a Glock pistol to him, while another time a sheriff’s department confiscated his gun. Last month, Jones opened fire in an Omaha Target store using a legally purchased AR-15 rifle. No one was hit, but police shot and killed the 32-year-old as shoppers fled in panic.
Experts say most people with mental illness are not violent and that they are far more likely to be victims of violent crime. Access to firearms is a big part of the problem.
“For him to be allowed to buy a firearm, there’s no excuse for it,” says Jones’ uncle, Larry Derksen Jr.. “It was just inevitable that something was going to happen.”
In August 2021, a deputy was called because Derksen didn’t want to return a gun to his nephew, who had just been released from a psychiatric hospital. Derksen said Jones was paranoid, had been hearing voices, and had traveled through several states fearing a cartel was chasing him.
Jones told the deputy that he was taking medication, he felt fine and had no plans to hurt anyone. The gun was clean, and the only conviction Jones had was for a DUI years earlier. “I had no reason,” a deputy wrote, “to believe Joseph could not possess a firearm.”
Nebraska isn’t among the 19 states with a red-flag law. Known as extreme risk protection orders, they’re intended to restrict the purchase of guns or remove them temporarily from people who may hurt themselves or someone else.
Federal law has banned some mentally ill people from buying guns since 1968, including those deemed a danger to themselves or others, who have been involuntarily committed, or judged not guilty by reason of insanity or incompetent to stand trial.
It sets what Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives spokesman John Ham calls a “very high bar.” In order for someone’s name to be submitted to the FBI for inclusion in the National Instant Criminal Background Check System, they must undergo a hearing in which they are deemed unable to take care of their personal business because of mental illness.