OMAHA, Neb. (AP) — In the last three years of his life, Joseph Jones was repeatedly sent to psychiatric hospitals because of his schizophrenia and delusions that a drug cartel was after him. The Nebraska man once lay down on a highway in Kansas because he wanted to be run over by a truck, but officers tackled him as he ran in front of vehicles. Time and time again, his family and the police took away his guns.
But Jones was able to keep legally buying firearms and law enforcement could do little. Once a deputy returned a Glock pistol to him, while another time a sheriff's department confiscated his gun, although keeping it raised questions. Last month, Jones opened fire in an Omaha Target store using a legally purchased AR-15 rifle. No one was hit by Jones' gunfire, but police shot and killed the 32-year-old as shoppers fled in panic.
The episode demonstrates how gun laws fail to keep firearms out of the hands of deeply troubled people, despite a national effort to pass red-flag laws in recent years.
Mental health experts say most people with mental illness are not violent and that they are far more likely to be victims of violent crime. Access to firearms is a big part of the problem.
“For him to be allowed to buy a firearm, there’s no excuse for it,” Jones' uncle, Larry Derksen Jr., said. “It was just inevitable that something was going to happen."
In August 2021, a deputy was called because Derksen didn't want to return a gun to his nephew, who had just been released from a psychiatric hospital. Derksen said Jones was paranoid, had been hearing voices, and had traveled through several states fearing a cartel was chasing him, according to a Sarpy County Sheriff’s Office incident report.
But Jones told the deputy that he was taking medication, he felt fine and had no plans to hurt anyone. The gun was clean, and the only conviction Jones had was for a DUI after he collided with another vehicle on his way home from a bar years earlier.
“I had no reason,” the deputy wrote in the report, “to believe Joseph could not possess a firearm.”
Nebraska isn't among the 19 states with a red-flag law. Also known as extreme risk protection orders, they’re intended to restrict the purchase of guns or temporarily remove them from people who may hurt themselves or someone else.
A red-flag law has been proposed for Nebraska this year, but it hasn’t received a legislative hearing yet.
“This is a kind of example screaming out for an extreme risk protection order,” said Kris Brown, the president of the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence. “It actually breaks my heart that that did not happen here.”
Federal law has banned some mentally ill people from buying guns since 1968, including those deemed a danger to themselves or others, who have been involuntarily committed, or judged not guilty by reason of insanity or incompetent to stand trial.
But it sets what Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives spokesman John Ham described as 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 undergo a hearing in which they are deemed unable to take care of their personal business because of mental illness.
The law describes it as being “adjudicated as a mental defective." Every state has a different process, but the multiple three-day involuntary commitments that Jones' family and law enforcement records described didn't trigger such a hearing.
A couple of years ago, Jones’ family was so desperate that they considered going through the process. They are familiar with some of the court processes because Jones’ mother also has schizophrenia, is low functioning and had to be committed to a group home.
But they decided not to pursue that because they were able to persuade law enforcement to intervene and get Jones into a mental hospital.
In November 2021, the family reported that Jones was threatening his grandmother and asking for a handgun that his uncle was storing so he could kill himself, according to a report from the Sarpy County Sheriff’s Office.
His grandmother, who was so frightened that she hid, told deputies that her grandson would “be fine for a few days” but then would “take a turn for the worse” as he resumed drinking and using the unregulated plant-based painkiller kratom, and possibly other drugs.
Deputies handcuffed Jones and took him to a hospital for evaluation. Derksen said the family thought the hospitalization would have the same effect as going through a formal hearing. Doctors can initiate the hearing process, but there is no record that any did, said Bonnie Moore, chief deputy Sarpy County attorney.
At that time, Derksen asked the deputies to take the handgun into safekeeping. Sarpy County Sheriff Jeff Davis said his department never returned the gun, although Jones repeatedly asked for it.
“By the letter of the law, some would say that it’s a violation of his Second Amendment rights maybe to take his weapon. But we have always erred on the side of caution," Davis said, noting that the circumstances surrounding the removal of the gun were much more alarming than when a deputy returned the firearm.
The problems only escalated. 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 had laid down on an interstate in the Emporia area, telling officers he wanted to be “ran over by a semi," the Sarpy County incident report said.
Derksen said one of the first things Jones did after he returned from Kansas was go to a Cabela’s store and buy a shotgun. The family took that gun, as they had others. Derksen's leverage was that he owned the duplex where Jones stayed with his grandmother.
Recently, Jones had called the FBI to report some sort of harassment, his uncle said; the agency said it couldn’t discuss specific calls.
Police haven't said why Jones entered the Target with 13 loaded rifle magazines and fired multiple rounds. Derksen said he believes his nephew didn't want to carry out a mass shooting, but instead wanted police to kill him. He said his nephew had delusions that the cartel would hurt his family if he didn’t kill himself.
A timeline released by police made no mention of Jones firing directly at customers or workers. Instead, he fired his AR-15 style rifle in the air and at inanimate objects including a self-checkout and a drink cooler. Authorities ordered him to drop the gun more than 20 times, and after Jones said “I’ll kill you!” he was shot once.
“We do really feel bad for the people who were traumatized at Target and even for the law enforcement officer who was forced to take that shot," Derksen said. “We know they did what they had to do. It just should have never been able to get there.”
Hollingsworth reported from Mission, Kansas. Lindsay Whitehurst in Washington, D.C., and Bernard Condon in New York contributed to this report.