In Utah shooting, a case of mental illness

Experts say medication, gun-buying laws at issue

April 18, 1999|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

SALT LAKE CITY -- For the second time in three months, this conservative city is grappling with news that a schizophrenic resident who refused to take medication had walked up to strangers and shot them dead.

Police spokesmen and advocates for the mentally ill called Friday for barring gun sales to people with histories of severe mental illness and for laws requiring that schizophrenics take their medicine.

The gunman, Sergei Babarin, 71, killed two people and wounded five others at a genealogical library before dying in a gun battle with police Thursday, the authorities said. His widow and son said Friday that he had refused to take his medication for schizophrenia since December.

Only three months ago, on Jan. 13, De-Kieu Duy, a woman who also had a history of schizophrenia, entered an office complex three blocks away from Thursday's killings at Temple Square, the heart of the Mormon Church, and shot to death an AT&T employee, police say.

The killings are only the latest involving schizophrenics who refuse to take their medicine. These cases, police say, include a man who pushed a young woman in front of a subway train in New York in January; a man who stabbed to death his pregnant fiancee in June at their home in Hastings-on-Hudson, N.Y.; and a Montana man who killed two police officers at the U.S. Capitol last summer.

The Treatment Advocacy Center, which seeks mandatory medication laws, says Americans with untreated severe mental illnesses commit nearly 1,000 homicides a year.

"People who are having severe mental illness problems should be prevented from buying a weapon," said Lt. Phil Kirk, a police spokesman here, noting that Babarin and Duy previously had been arrested for misdemeanor offenses involving weapons.

Referring to a federal law requiring background checks for felonies before guns may be sold, he said, "The Brady bill should be extended to misdemeanors involving weapons offenses."

In 1995, Babarin was arrested after he punched a 73-year-old man in a department store restroom, then tried to bite him on the face, police said. At the time, he was carrying a loaded .22-caliber semiautomatic pistol. He pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge of carrying a concealed weapon.

With surveys indicating that two-thirds of Utah adults own firearms, mental health advocates say more money should be spent on ensuring that schizophrenics take their medicine, prescription drugs that often allow them to lead normal lives.

"All I am hearing today is how we need to keep guns away from the mentally ill," said Vickie Cottrell of the Utah chapter of the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill. "Well, how about getting the medication to the mentally ill?"

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