After shooting spree, gun law concerns in La. town
- Article by: STACEY PLAISANCE
- Associated Press
- February 13, 2014 - 3:40 AM
HOUMA, La. — Denise Freeman was just starting to learn about the two sides to her new husband, Benjamin, before she was slain. There was the smiling Ben, dancing on a chair on his 38th birthday in October. Then there was the troubling Ben, handed a citation weeks later alleging domestic battery against his wife.
The day after Christmas, authorities say, Benjamin Freeman drowned his wife Denise 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. In a last violent act, he turned a shotgun on himself, taking his life.
The rampage stunned Louisiana's bayou community of Houma, southwest of New Orleans, where the couple lived. In a nation recoiling from numerous shootings, the spree raised questions whether Louisiana law provides adequate safeguards for keeping guns out of the hands of troubled people — a concern that echoes across communities elsewhere in the U.S.
"I want to know how he got a gun," said Denise's brother, Kainan Mcallister. He said his sister had confided to him and his wife, Jessica, that her husband was seeking help for a mental disorder after he received the domestic battery citation in November.
"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," 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 or whether a bipolar disorder was involved.
In photographs posted online, the couple appeared to be openly affectionate and loving.
The Mcallisters described Ben and Denise's relationship as a whirlwind romance. Both nurses, they met before but hadn't become romantically involved until recently. They dated and married in about a year's time and were often seen hugging and holding hands. But the Mcallisters say it was no secret Ben Freeman was having problems. The 38-year-old father of four from a previous marriage was embroiled in a custody dispute with his ex-wife.
Dr. Michael Blue, an assistant professor of clinical psychiatry at Tulane University School of Medicine, doesn't know the particulars of Freeman's mental health. But he said those with bipolar disorder, when not managed well, can experience inflated feelings of aggression, irritability, euphoria or depression. In extreme cases, patients can lose touch with reality or become delusional, he added.
No matter what was troubling 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, Blue said.
"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.
"Any person who is psychotic or manic could potentially be dangerous if they had access to a weapon," he noted.
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 since the shootings occurred there.
Asked if investigators were probing reports of a possible bipolar disorder in Ben Freeman, Matherne told The Associated Press in an email he had no information pending a toxicology report on Freeman still incomplete.
There was another nagging question raised by the killings: Agents who visited the Freeman home on Nov. 27 to answer a call about suspected domestic violence against the wife 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 a heads-up when responding to an incident, Adams said.
"The ability to do it is being implemented and built, but it's very complicated," 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.
He 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 Denver-based 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, including in the Newtown, Conn., school killings.
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 red flags arose during background checks. It was months before his ex-wife filed the protection order against him in Lafourche Parish.
Parishes, like counties elsewhere, are separate jurisdictions. When officers were called to Denise Freeman's Houma home in November, it fell to Terrebonne Parish agents to respond. And the crimes on Dec. 26 spanned two parishes as Freeman first killed his wife in Terrebonne Parish where Houma is located before entering Lafourche Parish nearby, authorities say.
After killing Denise, investigators say, Freeman went to the home of his ex-wife's parents, where he shot and killed his former mother-in-law and wounded his onetime father-in-law and former sister-in-law. Freeman then headed to the home of a longtime CEO for a hospital where Ben Freeman had worked as a nurse for years until 2011. Investigators say he shot and killed the executive and wounded the wife.
Hospital officials say Freeman had resigned, citing undisclosed personal reasons.
Lafource Parish Sheriff Craig Webre said police previously had been called to the hospital after Freeman damaged a room and that Freeman told officers he would seek mental help.
Today, relatives and survivors struggle to heal as police seek a motive.
The Mcallisters said Freeman's relationship with Denise appeared to be improving in December. Denise Freeman was moving to drop the battery charges, the Mcallisters said, and she and her two children joined Ben at a family holiday party at the McAllister home.
But right after Christmas, Ben Freeman snapped, they said. Said Jessica Mcallister: "He ended up doing something that you can't take back."
Kainan Mcallister said his sister, a nurse for more than 20 years and a nurturer at heart, leaves a big void. "She was just good at taking care of other people," he said, choking with emotion. "She just wanted to be a mom for everybody."
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