Comment

Worry stalks a shooting victim

January 19, 2013 

What would you think if you had a mentally ill former neighbor who one day came to your house and shot you 20 times with a .22-caliber rifle, and yet you miraculously survived, and he was sent off to a mental hospital and then prison, and then a few years later you went to a home improvement store in Durham with your kids and there he was – the shooter – obliviously walking right past you as just another customer and nobody in the store the wiser about what he had done and may yet be capable of?

What Kenny Vaughan thought was that he couldn’t believe what he was seeing. He was floored. And he was scared.

The chance meeting came more than 10 years after he’d been shot in 1995 outside his home in Rougemont. With most of the shrapnel from those bullets still in his body, he didn’t want any more.

Vaughan screwed up his courage, took his kids and left without an encounter with the man who tried to kill him. But the memory of that sighting has bothered him in recent months as he reads of shooting massacres carried out by men with known mental illness. That no one stopped them, it seems to Vaughan, is the crux of the problem, but one that seems to be lost in the rising debate about gun control.

Despite being shot, Vaughan supports gun rights. What he wants are more controls on mentally ill people who have shown a desire to hurt people. If they cant’t get a gun, they’ll do harm with something else, he says.

“I don’t think all people who are mentally ill are dangerous,” Vaughan says, “but some of these people (in the mass shootings), they’ve already drawn attention to themselves of what they are potentially able to do or wanting to do. I don’t think you take chances on those people and say, ‘OK, maybe 2 percent will go off the wall and harm someone.’ ”

Vaughan makes a good point. Why does it seem, he asks, that the rights of the mentally ill supersede the rights of the unsuspecting public? If he had died the night of Aug. 31, 1995, his former neighbor might well have been put away for life. But his survival means his would-be killer gets another chance at normalcy, at being a guy in the home improvement store. And the unknowing public gets another chance that a man who has demonstrated dangerous impulses will snap again.

Brian Stettin, policy director at the Treatment Advocacy Center in Arlington, Va., a national proponent of more services for the mentally ill, listens to a report of Vaughan’s frustration with sympathy. But he says the answer to his question is as complicated as the shifting and sometimes subsiding patterns of mental illness.

“Mentally ill people who are receiving treatment are not more dangerous,” Stettin says. “People who are mentally ill and not in treatment are more dangerous. It’s a matter of whether they are being treated that should make society worry.”

Vaughan said the man who shot him advertised his danger. When he lived near Vaughan and his wife and three children, the neighbor was moody and quarrelsome. He’d been put out of the military for mental instability. He would fire a gun in his yard for 45 minutes at a time, the bullets whizzing over the roof of the Vaughans’ home. They called the sheriff three times. They appealed to their county commissioners. They were told their neighbor had his rights to do what he wanted on his property.

Then the neighbor moved away to Durham. Vaughan and his wife, Fran, were relieved, until the day he pulled up in front of their home and stared at them. Shortly thereafter, he came back and shot Kenny in the Vaughan driveway, later telling police he had heard Kenny’s voice taunting him from his attic.

Once the shooting started, Fran came outside and begged the shooter to stop. Instead he reloaded.

“He didn’t even acknowledge she was there,” Vaughan recalls. “That’s how intent he was on doing what he was doing. He was demonic looking.”

Shortly after the shooting, the neighbor turned himself in to Durham police. He was committed to a state mental hospital, where he was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia, but was eventually deemed competent to stand trial. He pleaded guilty to one count of assault with a deadly weapon with intent to kill. He spent six years in prison and was released in 2006.

Stettin says the problem behind Vaughan’s story isn’t the laws. North Carolina has some of the best laws in the nation for promptly making an involuntary commitment, he says. But many people don’t take the trouble to employ those powers.

When the laws are used and the mentally ill get treatment, people should be allowed to resume normal lives, he says. It’s the illness, not the person, who is dangerous.

The deeper problem, Stettin says, is that North Carolina has been closing its doors on the option of commitment.

North Carolina has only eight psychiatric treatment beds per 100,000 residents when the consensus is that the proper level is 50 beds. Stettin adds that North Carolina is losing beds at an alarming rate. It reduced its number by 48 percent between 2005 and 2010, the third-sharpest reduction among all states.

But should the man who shot Vaughan start acting strangely and appearing violent again, North Carolina’s situation won’t matter. Public records show he now lives in Nashville, Tenn.

Editorial page editor Ned Barnett can be reached at 919-829-4512, or nbarnett@newsobserver.com

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