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After shooting spree, gun law concerns in US town

February 13, 2014

HOUMA, Louisiana (AP) — Denise Freeman was just starting to learn about the two sides to her new husband, Benjamin, before she was killed. There was the smiling Ben, dancing on a chair on his 38th birthday in October. Then there was the troubling Ben, given a citation weeks later alleging domestic battery against his wife.

The day after Christmas, authorities say, Benjamin Freeman drowned his wife in a bathtub before embarking on a shooting spree that left his ex-wife’s mother and the CEO of a hospital where he used to work dead. Three others were wounded. He then turned a shotgun on himself, taking his life.

In a nation recoiling from numerous mass shootings, the spree raised questions whether the law provides adequate safeguards for keeping guns out of the hands of troubled people.

“I want to know how he got a gun,” said Denise’s brother, Kainan Mcallister. He said his sister had confided that her husband was seeking help for a mental disorder.

“She told me that he was taking medication for bipolar disorder and that it was making him more aggressive and that they were switching the medication,” Kainan’s wife, Jessica Mcallister, said. “She wanted to help him. She was trying to get him help.”

Health professionals and investigators haven’t disclosed any mental health details about Ben Freeman.

Critics note it wasn’t hard for him to get a gun — or keep it.

Nationwide, patient confidentiality rights and privileges make it nearly impossible for mental health care providers to share patient information, even if they suspect someone is potentially dangerous, said Michael Blue, an assistant professor of clinical psychiatry at Tulane University School of Medicine.

“There isn’t really a law that protects me or any mental health professional,” he said. “It’s really only when they threaten a particular individual, then ... confidentiality can be broken, and then I have the duty to protect and warn the potential victim as well as the authorities.”

Blue said involuntary inpatient hospitalization is an option for those who are gravely disabled or an imminent threat to themselves or others. But imminent threat isn’t always so clear.

In the Freeman case, there has so far been no proof of premeditation, said Brennan Matherne, spokesman for the Lafourche Parish Sheriff’s Office, the lead investigating agency.

There was another question raised by the killings: Agents who visited the Freeman home on Nov. 27 to answer a call about suspected domestic violence didn’t know there was a protective order — previously requested by Freeman’s ex-wife in another jurisdiction — still in force. That order specified that Freeman could not possess a gun and covered the dates May 1 through Nov. 30, 2013.

Even had they known of the order and the gun restriction, existing law notes officers need consent or probable cause to search for a weapon. Still, the knowledge could have influenced the line of questioning or approach at the scene, Matherne said.

Pete Adams, executive director of the Louisiana District Attorneys Association, said the state is working to close the information loophole. Currently, court records about violent offenders and firearm restrictions are not automatically sent to the federal database known as NICS, where local law enforcement officers could get notice when responding to an incident, Adams said.

NICS — the National Instant Check System — provides background records to determine whether a person has been disqualified for various reasons from buying a gun.

Adams said Louisiana has a disconnect in communication among courthouses, local law enforcement agencies and NICS — each with different electronic record systems.

Jon Griffin, a policy specialist with the National Conference of State Legislatures, said that’s an issue in several states.

“In the wake of recent mass shootings across the country, legislators have examined ways to alter their firearms laws in ways that best serve their communities. One way they have done so is by requiring state agencies to report to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System when an individual is found mentally ill,” Griffin said via email.

Last month, the Obama administration announced a pair of executive actions intended to strengthen federal background checks for gun purchasers, particularly to limit firearms access for those with mental health issues. Several perpetrators of the nation’s worst mass shootings have had such issues.

One proposed rule change aims to clarify terminology used by federal law to prohibit people from buying a firearm for mental health reasons — after complaints ambiguous wording made it hard to determine who should be blocked from purchases.

In January 2013, Ben Freeman bought a 12-gauge shotgun at a chain store. But no warning signs arose during background checks. It was months before his ex-wife filed the protection order against him.

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Follow Stacey Plaisance on Twitter at https://twitter.com/splaisance

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