A man who had spent time in a mental institution just seven months earlier walked into a Fort Mill Cabela’s, bought a gun, walked out with it and an hour later shot a 19-year-old grocery worker five times, killing her.
How is this possible?
Christopher Benjamin Mendez had said he was having suicidal and homicidal thoughts and as a result spent more than a week in hospitals being treated for mental illness in June 2017, Solicitor Kevin Brackett told the Observer editorial board.
But that wasn’t even a speed bump in his buying a gun. On Jan. 23, 2018, he went to Cabela’s and on a required form checked “no,” he had not ever been committed to a mental institution. The clerk ran Mendez’s application through the National Instant Criminal Background Check System, which approved the sale.
About an hour later, Mendez gunned down Karson Whitesell in an act of random violence. On Tuesday, he was sentenced to life in prison without parole.
“Obviously nobody on either side of the gun rights issue is interested in having people who are mentally ill being able to purchase firearms,” Brackett said, according to the Rock Hill Herald. “This is apparently a defect in our system, because he was able to check ‘no’ and walk out of Cabela’s that day with a .45.”
People who are involuntarily committed to a mental institution are banned from buying guns. Why wasn’t Mendez in the national database as being prohibited from buying a gun given his commitment to a mental institution? And could others slip through the same crack in the system?
In response to questions from the Observer editorial board, Brackett did some more digging. This is what he found:
Mendez voluntarily went to Springs Memorial Hospital in Lancaster saying he had suicidal and homicidal thoughts. Doctors examined him, concluded he was a danger and admitted him involuntarily to Colleton Medical Center in Walterboro. He was there a week, got on medication, then attended a court hearing. By that time he had improved and the judge did not commit him to the hospital. So he was involuntarily admitted by a doctor but not involuntarily committed by a judge. That’s why his information was never sent to the national database.
It appears South Carolina, Cabela’s and NICS all followed the procedure set out in law. Yet a man who said he was having homicidal thoughts could buy a gun on demand. It’s impossible to know how many other people are doing the same thing.
Brackett suggests, and we agree, that states should consider whether patients who have been involuntarily admitted by a doctor should be reported to the federal database just as those committed by a judge are. Or South Carolina and other states could consider having such patients referred to judges who would assess whether that person’s right to own firearms should be temporarily suspended. Several states have adopted laws establishing extreme risk protection orders, or ERPOs. Under those, family members or law enforcement can petition a court to temporarily suspend a person’s gun-ownership rights if he is deemed an imminent danger to himself or others.
Mendez should not have been able to purchase a gun, given the danger he posed at the time. South Carolina, North Carolina and other states need to close this hole in the safety net.