OMAHA, nab. – During the last three years of his life, Joseph Jones was repeatedly sent to psychiatric hospitals because of his schizophrenia and delusions that he was being chased by a drug cartel. A Nebraska man once laid down on a highway in Kansas because he wanted to be run over by a truck, but officers grabbed him as he ran in front of the cars. Again and again, his family and the police took his guns away.
But Jones was able to continue buying firearms legally, and there was little law enforcement could do. On one occasion, a deputy returned his Glock pistol, on another occasion, the sheriff’s department confiscated the gun, though its possession raised questions. Last month, Jones opened fire at an Omaha Target store with a legally purchased AR-15 rifle. No one was hurt by Jones’ shots, but police shot and killed a 32-year-old man as shoppers fled in panic.
This episode demonstrates how gun laws fail to keep firearms out of the hands of deeply troubled people, despite national efforts to pass red flag laws in recent years.
Mental health experts say that most people with mental illness are not violent and that they are much more likely to be victims of violent crime. Access to firearms is a big part of the problem.
“There’s no excuse for him being allowed to buy a firearm,” Jones’ uncle, Larry Derksen Jr., said. “It was just inevitable that something was going to happen.”
In August 2021, the deputy was called because Derksen did not want to return the gun to his nephew, who had just been released from a mental hospital. Derksen said Jones was paranoid, hearing voices and traveling across several states, fearing he was being chased by the cartel, according to a Sarpy County Sheriff’s Office incident report.
But Jones told the deputy he was on medication, feeling fine and had no plans to hurt anyone. The gun was clean, and the only conviction Jones had was for DUI after he hit another car on his way home from a bar years ago.
“I had no reason,” the deputy wrote in the report, “to believe that Joseph could not possess a firearm.”
Nebraska does not count 19 states with red flag laws. Also known as extreme risk protection orders, these are designed to restrict the purchase of guns or temporarily take them away from people who may harm themselves or someone else.
A red flag law was proposed for Nebraska this year, but it has yet to receive a legislative hearing.
“This is a peculiar case that warrants an extreme risk protection order,” said Chris Brown, president of the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence. “It really breaks my heart that it didn’t happen here.”
Federal law has barred some mentally ill people from buying guns since 1968, including those who pose a danger to themselves or others, who have been committed involuntarily or who have been found not guilty by reason of insanity or incompetence.
But it sets what Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives spokesman John Hamm called “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 go through a hearing in which they are found to be incapacitated due to mental illness.
The law describes this as “deemed to be a mental defect”. Each state has a different procedure, but the multiple three-day involuntary commitments that Jones’ family and law enforcement records allege have not resulted in such a hearing.
A couple of years ago, the Jones family was so desperate that they considered going through the process. They are familiar with some of the lawsuits because Jones’ mother is also schizophrenic, low-functioning, and should be placed in a group home.
But they decided not to pursue it as they were able to convince law enforcement to intervene and commit Jones to a mental hospital.
In November 2021, family reported that Jones threatened his grandmother and asked for a gun his uncle kept so he could kill himself, according to a news release from the Sarpy County Sheriff’s Office.
His grandmother, who was so scared she went into hiding, told deputies her grandson “will be fine for a few days” but then “get worse” if he starts drinking and using the unregulated herbal painkiller kratom again, and possibly other drugs.
Deputies handcuffed Jones and took him to the hospital to be evaluated. Derksen said the family thought hospitalization would have the same effect as going through a formal hearing. Doctors can initiate the hearing process, but there is no record of anyone doing so, said Bonnie Moore, Sarpy County’s chief deputy prosecutor.
At that time, Derksen asked the deputies to take the gun for safekeeping. Sarpy County Sheriff Jeff Davis said his department never returned the gun, despite Jones’ repeated requests for it.
“Looking at the letter of the law, some would say it’s a violation of his Second Amendment rights, maybe taking his gun. But we always exercised caution,” Davis said, noting that the circumstances surrounding the removal of the weapon were much more troubling than when the deputy returned the weapon.
The problems only grew. In June 2022, Jones’ grandmother reported him missing, saying he had stopped taking his schizophrenia medication months earlier. His employer, a garage door company, said he was no longer showing up for work.
Law enforcement found him in Kansas, where he laid down on an interstate in the Emporia area, telling officers he wanted to be “run over,” according to a Sarpy County incident report.
Derksen said one of the first things Jones did after returning from Kansas was go to a Cabela’s and buy a shotgun. The family took that gun, as did the others. Derksen’s influence was that he owned the duplex where Jones stayed with his grandmother.
Jones recently called the FBI to report some harassment, his uncle said; the agency said it could not discuss specific calls.
Police did not say why Jones entered the target with 13 loaded magazines and fired several rounds. Derksen said he believes his nephew didn’t want to commit a mass shooting, but wanted the police to kill him. He said his nephew had a delusion that the cartel would hurt his family if he didn’t kill himself.
Chronology released by police, made no mention of Jones shooting directly at customers or workers. Instead, he fired an AR-15 rifle into the air and at inanimate objects, including a cash register and a beverage cooler. Authorities ordered him to drop the gun more than 20 times, and after Jones said, “I’m going to kill you!” he was shot once.
“We feel very bad for the people who were injured at Target and even for the law enforcement officer who had to fire that shot,” Derksen said. – We know that they did what they had to do. It shouldn’t have been possible to get there.”
Hollingsworth reported from Mission, Kansas. Lindsay Whitehurst in Washington, DC and Bernard Condon in New York contributed to this report.
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