VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. (WAVY) — A local couple says they are determined to change the system for gun purchase rights. The couple says their concern is over people who have a documented history of treatment for mental illness and have demonstrated that they are a harm to themselves or others.

Joe and Joan Neely say they are inspired to make a change over the loss of their son Joseph. 33-year-ol Joseph Neely committed suicide in February after he was able to purchase a gun from a local pawn shop.

The Neelys say in the four months leading up to Joseph’s death, he had been treated for severe depression about a dozen times, and had tried to commit suicide with alcohol and pills. Prior to that period, Joseph had been in and out of treatment for several years.

The Neelys say Joseph would never have been able to purchase the gun that took his life if there had been a way to make him ineligible due to his history of self-harm.

Joseph’s “inner demons’

When Joseph was a student athlete at Tallwood High School, you couldn’t tell by looking at him that he was deaf. He overcame that challenge at every turn. His father Joe Neely remembers his son with pride.

“Tennis, baseball, basketball, soccer, he excelled at all of those things. He graduated from high school with honors.”

Beginning in college, Joseph would soon fall into a downward spiral of alcohol and severe depression.  Last fall, at 33, his adult life had been a tragic string of short-lived jobs and ineffective therapy.

“At the end of October, Joe reached out and said he was severely depressed,” his mother Joan recalls. “He really wanted to come home.”

A few days later, the Neelys were jolted by the gravity of their son’s turmoil.

“I received a text message from him saying that he had taken an overdose of pills along with some wine,” Joan Neely says. “And that he just could not fight his personal demons anymore.”

Police and EMTs responded to their Croatan home. Joseph got sick but didn’t die.

“We found ourselves in a three-way, very dark conversation about the demons again and how bad he felt and his wanting to hurt himself. We asked him do you need to go back to the hospital again, and he said ‘yes,’” Joe Neely says.

The fact that Joseph agreed to get help voluntarily, and was not adjudicated or committed to psychiatric treatment was pivotal in his case.

In the next several weeks, Joseph had several sessions with a counselor and psychiatrist. His family estimates that Joseph’s suicide attempt and treatment should have generated about a dozen police and medical records.

On January 20, Joseph went to a local pawn shop to buy a gun. Nothing emerged in the 30-day wait for the background check that would have disqualified him to buy a gun.

February 24, Joseph didn’t show up for dinner and one of the cars was gone. His Facebook page had been deleted. Joseph’s parents filed a missing person report.

“At five o’clock on the 25th, two detectives did come to the house,” Joan Neely says.  “They were coming to tell me that my son had taken his own life on Sandbridge Beach.”

Joe and Joan Neely had no idea that their son had a gun. They can’t understand how someone with a documented history of treatment for mental illness and a recent suicide attempt would be able to buy a gun.

Making a change

Richard Bonnie, a professor of both law and psychiatry at the University of Virginia, is a member of the Consortium for Risk-Based Firearm Policy. The group supports the idea of a Gun Violence Restraining Order.

“By itself, mental illness is not necessarily associated with violence to other people.”

Bonnie says he is looking at mental health as just one of several factors that can predict gun violence.

“Among people that attempt to commit suicide, they are much more likely to be successful if they do it with a firearm.”

For urgent cases like Joseph’s, the gun violence restraining order would enable family members to petition a judge to block the person temporarily from having or buying a gun.

“When the restraining order is lifted, their rights can be returned,” Bonnie says about the proposal.

Bonnie explains the logic behind the current law, which allows people such as Joseph Neely to retain gun purchase rights if they seek their treatment voluntarily.

“It would be a huge mistake to make simply having been in a psychiatric hospital, voluntarily, a basis for disqualifying people of their gun rights. Because that would clearly, among other things, discourage people from getting the help that they need and it would be highly counterproductive.”

Both Bonnie and the Neelys say they’re not trying to deny mentally stable people the right to have and purchase guns.

“Our whole premise [in the consortium] is that we take the Second Amendment as a given,” Bonnie says.

Joe Neely agrees. “I understand how sensitive it is in this state about the Second Amendment. I’m not trying to hurt anybody that wants to buy a firearm.”

We asked the National Rifle Association about the idea of a gun violence restraining order. The organization responded with this statement:

“The Neely family has suffered a tragic loss, and our hearts go out to them during their time of grief. It is clear that America’s mental health system is broken. The NRA has long supported and will continue to support measures to fix our broken mental health system while protecting the rights of the law-abiding. The NRA supports prohibiting people adjudicated mentally incompetent or involuntarily committed to mental institutions from possessing firearms. Unfortunately, many states fail to enter relevant mental health records into the system, which is why the NRA recently supported legislation to ensure that states submit disqualifying mental health records into the background check system. Sadly, there are groups that seek to exploit tragedies to pursue their failed political agenda. We hope that the legislative discussion over mental health reform will not continue to be used to promote gun control restrictions on those who do not suffer from mental illness.”

“We need to focus on what we’re doing in Virginia, and we need to do a better job of looking at the individual before they buy a firearm,” Joe Neely says. “Joseph never should have been able to get his hands on a gun legally. Hopefully, we can get that changed.”

Currently three states — Connecticut, Indiana and Texas — have laws where law enforcement can intervene to temporarily suspend gun possession and purchase rights based on imminent danger to self or others.

The most recent effort to get a similar law enacted in Virginia failed to get out of committee earlier this year.

The gun violence restraining order concept would take that a step further, by enabling family members or intimate partners to petition a judge. They would need to provide probable cause through evidence of treatment for mental illness and imminent threat to self or others.

The Neelys support the concept, but Joe Neely says it would have to operate efficiently. He says when loved ones are in crisis, not a moment can be wasted.

“Anything that involves a magistrate or a judge, there needs to be a quick way of the family getting to somebody. It has to be fast.”

Joan Neely says she has opened people’s eyes to the current law when it comes to someone’s with her son’s history being able to buy a gun.

“They had no idea that he could have legally gone into a shop and purchased a gun. They find that appalling that was even allowed.”

Her husband says the couple wants something positive to emerge from the son’s tragic death that would balance gun rights with the need to reconsider current policy.

“All the people that I know that are big supporters of the second amendment have lots of firearms. They’re in total agreement with me. Something needs to change.”