RENO -- The mentally ill 19-year-old who bought a gun from an on-duty Reno police sergeant was found by a judge last year to have a mental disability, which makes him prohibited from possessing a firearm under state and federal law, a Reno Gazette-Journal investigation found.
Washoe (Nev.) District Judge Egan Walker ruled in June 2012 that the man has a mental illness and is "incompetent to manage his personal and financial affairs," according to court records acquired exclusively by the Gazette-Journal. It is illegal for a person "adjudicated" with a mental illness to have a gun.
Sgt. Laura Conklin did not ask for a background check when she sold the young man the firearm on July 2. Those checks are not required for private party sales under state or federal law.
The case has re-ignited the debate about background checks for private gun sales. The Nevada Legislature argued during the 2013 session about the need for background checks for all sales and passed a measure requiring them, but Gov. Brian Sandoval vetoed the bill, saying it would "erode Nevadans' Second Amendment rights."
Adding to the controversy, Washoe District Court clerk Joey Orduna Hasting said late Monday that they made a mistake in their coding system and the man's case was not sent to the Nevada Department of Public Safety to be included in the background check system. That means his name has been missing from the list for more than a year.
The mistake was discovered Monday when the Gazette-Journal asked the court for a list of cases in which a person was "adjudicated" with a mental illness and then added to the Central Repository for Nevada Records of Criminal History and the National Instant Criminal Background Check System. Nevada courts have been required to send this information since 2010.
Later Tuesday, Orduna Hastings said the court will send the man's record to public safety officials along with any others they find in an audit of their records. Public safety officials said they typically enter information they receive from the court by the close of the business day that it comes in.
Jill Schaller of Reno, Nev., was outraged when she learned that Conklin sold a firearm to her son just six hours after they connected about an ad she posted on a website. Schaller's son has Asperger's syndrome, suffers from depression and has threatened suicide to such an extreme that he was placed in a mental health facility last year.
After that incident, Jill and Richard Schaller petitioned the court for legal guardianship of their son and the judge granted the petition June 12, 2012, making the young man an adult ward. The Reno Gazette-Journal is not naming the 19-year-old because of Schaller's request not to name him because of his mental illness and his guardian status.
Schaller said her son believes the sale was legal because he studied the questions on the website where he found the gun for sale and he passed all the requirements - namely that he was older than 18.
But most important, the person selling the gun was a police officer and in his mind, that confirmed that the sale was legal, Schaller said.
"The sale happened fast and was very casual," Schaller said. "There was no seriousness around the transaction that this was a lethal object. It was like buying a scooter. I would have been thrilled if she had arrested him. I needed Laura Conklin to act like a police officer."
Conklin's lawyer, Thomas Viloria, said she did not violate the law because she did not know the man was prohibited from having a gun. Reno Police Chief Steve Pitts said Tuesday that his department "acted swiftly and decisively" when they learned about the incident and have started an administrative investigation.
Mike Campbell, spokesman for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives in Washington D.C., confirmed that the laws don't require private gun sellers to search records to determine whether the buyer can have a gun.
"You wouldn't even have to ask for a driver's license," said Campbell. "That's one of the issues with a private sale - you don't have to go through a background check."
Nevada state Sen. Justin Jones, a Democrat from Las Vegas who sponsored Senate Bill 221, which required background checks on all gun sales, and that Sandoval vetoed in June, said the case exemplifies the need for the records checks.
"As too often happens, another person who shouldn't have access to firearms was able to easily buy a handgun because of loopholes in our laws for private gun sales," Jones said in an email. "SB221's primary intent was to close these loopholes and require background checks for private firearm sales to ensure that people like this young man do not obtain weapons."
Sandoval spokeswoman Mary-Sarah Kinner said the law prohibits people found by a judge to have a mental illness to have a firearm.
"Under both current statute and SB 221, it is incumbent on the seller to perform due diligence," said Kinner. "SB 221 would not have changed the enforcement mechanism that is currently in place."
Mental health issues
The court records filed to support the petition to place the young man under guardianship details his mental health history. He was diagnosed with Aspergers, major depressive disorder, obsessive compulsive disorder and narcolepsy, said Dr. Kristin Hestdalen, a Reno psychiatrist who submitted a letter and evaluation with the Schallers' guardianship request.
Hestdalen said the young man is on a "multi-medication regimen" for the disorders, and said he "lacks an understanding of his physical and medical needs and is unable to make appropriate financial decisions or care for himself."
"The proposed ward presents danger to himself," she said.
After a hearing and review of the documents, the judge ruled Schallers' son "incompetent" and appointed them as co-guardians. As such, they must oversee his medical care, ensure he has a safe home and place him in a "psychiatric facility with the assistance of law enforcement and/or REMSA, if necessary."
The young man did not oppose the designation but was fully involved in the process, per court records.
If he had tried to purchase a gun at a federally licensed gun dealer he would have had to be 21 years old, but he also would have completed a form that asked a list of questions to determine whether he could legally possess a gun.
The Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives Form 4473 asks "have you ever been adjudicated mentally defective (which includes a determination by a court, board, commission or other lawful authority that you are a danger to yourself or to others or are incompetent to manage your own affairs) or have you ever been committed to a mental institution?"
Jill Schaller said if her son had seen that document, he would have known that he was not allowed to buy a gun. Instead, he answered an ad by a police officer and had the firearm under his bed within about six hours.
Federal law on gun sales
-- A person is prohibited from possessing firearms, ammunition or explosives if he or she has been found by a court to have a "mental defect" -- defined as a mental illness or incompetence -- or "has been committed to a mental institution."
-- A person can only sell a firearm to another person "if he does not know or have reasonable cause to believe the person is prohibited from receiving or possessing firearms under federal law."
Source: Reno Gazette-Journal research
Martha Bellisle, Reno Gazette-Journal