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Mentally ill but able to buy guns, Fort Worth man accused in 'random' killing

Fort Worth Star-Telegram - 3/2/2018

March 02--FORT WORTH -- The parents of Ernest Eulice Morrison IV feared their son would shoot himself or someone else, and they tried desperately to stop him.

Their son is a 24-year-old Navy veteran who liked guns -- who owned guns -- and who heard voices and suffered from other mental illnesses.

His behavior had shifted from bizarre to scary, including pointing a pistol at his mother last October.

The mother filed a report with police, but didn't want to pursue charges against her son.

On Oct. 25, two days after he had pointed the gun at his mother, police say Morrison fatally shot Billy Joe Williams Sr., a 55-year-old grandfather who had just left his home and was walking along Grayson Street to pick up his grandchildren from Christine Moss Elementary School.

Some of the young children at Moss Elementary witnessed the aftermath of the shooting, which police said appeared to have been "very random."

Morrison did not immediately emerge as a suspect and was not arrested until Dec. 22, after police linked him to the shooting through his black Dodge Charger and a 9mm Glock later found at his home.

Morrison's mother, who declined to speak to the Star-Telegram, had been vigilant in trying to keep guns away from her son, and on Dec. 4 -- five weeks after Williams had been killed -- she and Morrison took two assault-style rifles to a local gun dealer, who purchased the weapons.

David Smith, owner of the Alpine Gun Range, was not obligated by law to buy the guns but felt it was the right thing to do.

"I'd rather take the chance of making a customer angry than take a chance on someone getting hurt," Smith said.

Gun store employees had warned Morrison's mother that her son still had a gun, a 9mm Glock, and she told them that she "had put it away at home," according to an arrest warrant affidavit.

That is the gun police say Morrison used to shoot Williams.

Morrison remains in the Tarrant County Jail on a murder charge, with bail set at $500,000. A Tarrant County magistrate ordered a mental health evaluation for him on Jan. 4, according to court documents. His attorney has declined to comment.

As the nation continues to debate the need for tougher gun laws and arming teachers to prevent school shootings, Morrison's case pulls back the curtain on the issue of the mentally ill and their ability to purchase guns.

It's not a new conversation, just one that is burning hot again. When he was in office, President Barrack Obama pushed to bolster background checks and provide more funding for mental health treatment. The American Psychiatric Association has recommended that restricting the purchase of firearms should be based on "evidence of dangerousness."

'They just changed his prescription'

Morrison's father said there should be a way for relatives to report concerns that would effectively block the sale of weapons to a family member suffering from a mental illness, especially one who is a veteran undergoing treatment at a Department of Veterans Affairs hospital.

"We really tried to do all we could to avoid a situation like this," said Ernest Morrison III, 49. "I mentioned the weapons to the VA psychologists and said this is a possible threat, but they just changed his prescription and sent him on his way."

The family called Fort Worth police with their concerns as well, but because Morrison had no criminal history, he was untouchable in his right to "bear arms."

In cases like Morrison's, protocol does not call for Fort Worth police officers to alert federal authorities, said Daniel Segura, police spokesman.

Red-flag laws in a handful of states -- but not Texas -- allow law enforcement authorities to use legal maneuvers such as protective orders to keep dangerous people from purchasing guns. Earlier this week, Rhode Island became the sixth state to enact a red-flag law.

Texas lawmakers did consider such legislation in the 2017 session, but it didn't get far.

State Rep. Nicole Collier, D-Fort Worth, said House Bill 866 took a reasonable approach to tackling what she characterized as the "catastrophic gun violence that we have seen in Texas."

"Unfortunately, the bill did not make it out of committee and to the House floor for discussion," Collier said. "If the result of this bill would save one life, it is worth it to me."

According to the Pew Research Center, 89 percent of nearly 4,000 adults surveyed in 2017 favored preventing people with mental illnesses from purchasing guns.

'Decided to handle the situation'

Morrison's father said his son was a good child who got good grades in school and was outgoing and friendly. That was then. But by the time the shooting occurred, Morrison's parents no longer lived together and his father resided in New Orleans.

Morrison grew up in south Fort Worth and graduated from North Crowley High School in 2011.

An aunt who asked not to be identified described Morrison as an "awesome nephew" and a "quiet, decent child."

Morrison joined the Navy after high school and spent most of 2013 on the USS Boxer, where he helped launch and land helicopters. He ended his service while stationed at Naval Medical Center San Diego. Morrison's father said Navy records show his son was medically discharged in June 2014 after hearing nonexistent voices.

Navy officials, citing privacy laws, would not confirm if Morrison had been diagnosed with schizophrenia or post-traumatic stress disorder.

After returning to Fort Worth, Morrison moved in with his mother, and by all accounts, was fascinated with guns.

Morrison purchased a gun in 2016 at the Alpine Shooting Range in Fort Worth near Kennedale and put another gun on layaway, according to Smith, the gun range owner.

Morrison's mother found the receipt from that purchase and made her first visit to Alpine in 2016. She asked store employees not to sell anymore guns to Morrison. A store employee called Morrison about the gun he had on layaway -- telling him it was not longer for sale -- and Morrison came to the store the next day and obtained a refund, Smith said.

When Morrison and his mother returned to the store in December 2017, employees bought back two assault-style rifles, according to an arrest warrant affidavit.

"We decided to handle the situation based on the word of his mom," Smith said. "He passed all the background checks. Even though he was legally able to buy those guns, we refused to sell anymore guns to him. He had a gun on layaway and we called him and refunded his money."

Smith said Morrison never practiced shooting at Alpine.

"I saw him in here with his mom when she brought his guns in that I purchased," Smith said. "He never spoke."

'Would create a chilling effect'

While Smith chose to act on the concerns of Morrison's mother, Veterans Affairs personnel are not required to notify local, state or federal authorities about the mental health status of patients in their system, said Penny Kerby, spokeswoman for the VA North Texas Health Care System. She declined to comment on whether Morrison is schizophrenic or otherwise impaired.

Veterans committed to a mental institution or found incompetent to manage their affairs can be red-flagged for the National Instant Criminal Background Check system, Kerby said. The system provides gun sellers with a list of people who are not eligible to purchase firearms.

A veteran can also be added to the list if he or she has a history of violence or was dishonorably discharged as a result of violent behavior, said Lindsay Nichols, federal policy director for the Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, an anti-gun-violence advocacy group.

Greg Hansch, public policy director of the National Alliance on Mental Illness in Texas, said protecting the privacy -- and rights -- of the mentally ill is critically important on many fronts.

"Mental health professionals should not disclose information about a client to law enforcement unless there is written consent or the client is an imminent risk of harm to self or others. That applies even if the client has a criminal record," said Hansch. "If that professional were to share that information with law enforcement without there being consent or an imminent risk of harm to self or others, that would create a chilling effect on those wishing to come forward with their mental health issues."

'No procedure for a family member'

The one element that Morrison's case shares with our nation's most recent mass shootings is that red flags were raised.

On Nov. 5, an angry Devin Kelley walked into a church in Sutherland Springs near San Antonio and killed 25 people and an unborn child.

The Air Force failed to share Kelley's military criminal history -- he had assaulted his wife -- with the officials who compile the names for the FBI's background check system. Had Kelley's dishonorable discharge been included, that would have prevented him from purchasing a firearm.

Since the Sutherland Springs shooting, the military has added the names of more than 4,200 dishonorably discharged former service members, which caused the database to swell from 11,000 to 15,597 in February, according to a CNN report.

And on Valentine's Day, Nikolas Cruz, 19, is accused of killing 17 people at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla. -- where Cruz had been a student before being expelled. The warning signs had been evident, so much that other students were not surprised that he became a school shooter.

As recently as Jan. 5, the FBI received information that Cruz had guns and was threatening to kill people but did not forward that information to its field office in Miami.

Despite the warning signs, Cruz legally purchased the semiautomatic rifle that he is accused of using in the massacre.

In Morrison's case, his parents wanted to protect their son and others, but had no clear path to follow.

"There is no procedure for a family member to be able to do this and there should be one," said Nichols, of the Giffords Law Center. "Family members will be the ones who recognize first whether there is a person in crisis."

'The wrath of the gun lobby'

Rhode Island, California, Connecticut, Indiana, Oregon and Washington have created pathways for parents and law enforcement officers to take information before a judge that can red-flag an individual for further investigation if the question of a gun purchase comes up.

A 2016 study by researchers at Duke University looked at 14 years of data after the passage of red-flag legislation in Connecticut and found that removing guns from people at risk may have prevented up to 100 suicides.

Texas state Rep. Joe Moody and Sen. Jose Rodriguez -- both from El Paso -- authored the red-flag legislation during the 2017 session and have pledged to file similar legislation next year.

Both are concerned that the legislation did not receive an adequate hearing.

"There is a reluctance to even talk about these things," Moody said. "The amount of opposition to it was startling to me."

Rodriguez said the legislation never made it out of the Senate because "Senate leaders were unwilling to risk the wrath of the gun lobby."

Morrison's father, while frustrated with the way the system handled his son, is hopeful that his case will lead to change in Texas.

"He comes from a good background and this is not him," Morrison's father said. "It's the mental illness."

Mitch Mitchell: 817-390-7752, @mitchmitchel3


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