Shooting reloads mental illness debate
By Brent Curtis
staff writer | April 27,2014
Eight months before he allegedly shot his neighbor and two Vermont State Police troopers near his Leicester home, police say Tim Foley voluntarily surrendered what may have been the very gun he used in the April 6 shooting.
Foley is charged with four counts of attempted murder for allegedly shooting a disabled neighbor in his bed and two state police troopers. He also shot at and missed another neighbor who was sleeping when Foley allegedly forced his way into her home, police say.
The weapon police say he used during the incident was a 12-gauge shotgun found loaded on a kitchen table after Foley surrendered to police at the end of an early morning standoff at his home at 1509 Lake Dunmore Road.
The same type of weapon — if not the exact same gun — was taken from the home eight months earlier when police were called to the house by Foley after an accidental shooting.
Foley, who lives alone, told police he was cleaning his gun when it went off, shooting out a window and — he believed — killing his daughter who he told police he saw lying dead in his yard.
While there was evidence at the scene of a gun being fired, the Brandon Police officers who responded said they found no evidence of a fatal shooting or that anyone else had been on the property except for Foley.
The 47-year-old, who police say has been diagnosed with schizophrenia — a mental condition characterized by irrational thinking and delusions — also told police in August that he had been hearing voices.
Most of the doors in his two-story home had been screwed shut, Brandon police reported at that time.
When asked about the doors, Foley said he’d heard voices in the rooms and wanted to trap them there.
No criminal charges were brought during the incident in August, but state police said this month that out of concern for Foley’s safety and that of the community, the Leicester man was asked to surrender his shotgun to state police who were also called to the scene.
“We took it for safekeeping reasons,” said state police Capt. Donald Patch. “We approach these kinds of situations thinking of the safety of ourselves and everyone else.”
But since Foley hadn’t committed any crime, and was bound by no court order barring the possession of a firearm, Patch said police soon returned the shotgun by giving it to a responsible adult who knows Foley.
“We can’t just go take guns away from people, but we can secure them for safety reasons for short periods of time,” Patch said.
The incident underscores a debate taking place in Vermont and nationwide concerning legal access to guns for people with mental illnesses.
Federal law makes it illegal to sell guns or ammunition to any person who has been “adjudicated as a mental defective or has been committed to any mental institution,” and 45 states have their own laws that add additional restrictions or reporting requirements.
Vermont is one of the only states, according to a list maintained by the National Conference of State Legislatures, that has no laws on the books regarding access to guns for those with mental illnesses.
And there probably won’t be any soon, according to legislators who backed stalled gun legislation.
In 2012, a bill in the Senate sought to require the Vermont Department of Mental Health to report to the agency that conducts federal background checks on gun purchases information about persons who have been treated either in or out of hospitals for mental health illnesses that cause a person to be a danger to themselves or others.
The proposed legislation also called for a person found not guilty of a crime by reason of insanity or incompetency to be reported.
But the bill, which is modeled after legislation passed in a number of states following a 2007 shooting at Virginia Tech that involved a shooter who should have been banned from purchasing firearms under the federal law, has not moved since it was initially sent to the Senate Health and Welfare Committee in February 2012.
Sen. Richard Sears, D-Bennington, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee said he’s disappointed with the lack of progress on the bill he helped to sponsor.
“Obviously, this is a controversial issue because we don’t want to take guns away from responsible gun owners,” Sears said. “But it seems to me that one place where we can improve the system without jeopardizing people’s rights is by making sure we report on those people who can’t buy guns under federal law.”
Vermont isn’t the lowest-ranked state when it comes to reporting people barred by mental health concerns to the National Instant Criminal Background Check system established under the federal Brady Law.
According to a 2011 study conducted by Mayors Against Illegal Guns, Vermont ranked 37th in the country after accounting for population with 4.1 records per 100,000 residents for a total of 26 mental health reports that the state had sent to NICS in the 16 years since the background checking system went into operation.
Vermont’s numbers pale compared to the 876 per 100,000 people that represents the national average, according to the study.
But there is relatively little gun violence in Vermont, and not even law enforcement officials have reached a consensus on how to approach gun ownership by the seriously mentally ill.
From the perspective of Barre Police Chief Tim Bombardier, the state needs to pass a legislation like the one supported by Sears to close loopholes in the federal law.
“Right now, someone could commit a homicide, be deemed mentally incompetent and then get out and lie on a federal form to get a gun,” Bombardier said.
On the other hand, Patch said he is unsure any law could absolutely prevent people with serious mental health issues from obtaining guns.
“Felons aren’t supposed to possess guns, either, but they manage to,” he said. “I can’t speculate that a law would prevent someone from carrying a gun.”
In addition, the state police captain said he has doubts about the government’s ability to parse out which people with mental illness should and should not own guns.
“Mental illness isn’t a crime,” he said. “Many people who lose their grasp on reality are not a danger to themselves or anyone else.”
That concern is echoed by AJ Ruben, supervising attorney for Disability Rights of Vermont, a nonprofit group dedicated to protecting and advocating the rights of people with disabilities.
Ruben said legislators crafting gun laws specific to people with mental illnesses would need to use extreme care to protect rights and civil liberties even in cases where hospitalizations are ordered.
“The thing about mental illness is that these people have been discriminated against, abused, picked on and jailed throughout history — all because people are afraid of them,” he said.
In Ruben’s view, what the state needs is to follow through with a strategy laid out in a 2012 law that calls for mobile mental health crisis teams operating in the community to respond to situations like the incident that occurred at Foley’s home in August.
“If Act 79 was fully implemented than there would have been outreach workers out there to work with him,” Ruben said. “It probably would have prevented what might have been an acute situation from getting out of hand.”