John Hokanson Jr. is bipolar. The 33-year-old has been involuntarily committed several times, in California and in Arizona, and he has been in court-ordered outpatient treatment. Yet no red flags were raised when he purchased a surplus Army rifle from a Big 5 Sporting Goods store in Phoenix.
In fact, the only reason we know this particular mentally ill man purchased firearm is because he’s deciding to tell his story, frustrated by what he sees as a “false dichotomy” with mass shootings framed as either a mental-health issue only or a gun issue only.
Everyone agrees that guns should be kept out of the hands of the mentally ill, even the National Rifle Association. But taking the steps to make that happen is where agreement ends. The Isla Vista shooter’s fragile mental state was known by his parents and the professionals who had treated him since childhood, but police doing a “wellness check” on him at the request of his mother failed to even ask about the guns in his possession.
Hokanson thought he needed a gun because he was living in what he describes as a bad neighborhood. This was in 2005-2006, so he was in his mid-twenties. During a depressive episode when he wasn’t caring for himself or cleaning his apartment, and was in the hospital awaiting evaluation, his sister took it upon herself to break into his apartment and remove the rifle. She took it to a gun turn-in program. Initially furious with his sister, Hokanson came to see the wisdom in what she did.
“In retrospect, I love her for it,” he told The Daily Beast. “I’ve never had homicidal thoughts, but the thing with the gun—I would have killed myself with it—no question.” He noted that a little more than 50 percent of suicides among men are with firearms, while women are more likely to kill themselves by overdosing on prescription drugs.
Hokanson’s bipolar disorder appeared when he was in his late teens and early twenties. In California, he was taken in on a “5150,” the code for involuntary commitment when someone is deemed a threat to themselves or others. He remembers being handed a sheet of paper that said he was prohibited from owning a firearm under state and federal law. At the Big 5 Sporting Goods store in Phoenix, he filled out the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives’s Form 4473, checking “no” on question “11f,” which asked whether he had ever been “adjudicated mentally defective” or committed to a mental institution.
“I make no excuses for it,” he says. “I checked the box that said no and that was a lie.” That one question should have disqualified him, but he signed the form, handed it to the clerk at the sporting-goods store, “and he called up wherever he called up, and it came back ‘proceed with sale.’ I walked out with the rifle in tow after about 20 minutes. Plus a box of ammunition.”
Hokanson’s name should have been fed into the National Instant Criminal Background Check System when he was in California. If it had been and the system worked, he should have been flagged in Arizona.
“I *still* don’t know if I’m in that f*cking database like I’m supposed to be,” he posted on Facebook. “I’ve been court ordered for treatment plenty of times.” The way for him to find out would be to try and buy another gun, which he has not attempted to do.
He’s stable now, takes his meds, and is living in a somewhat better neighborhood. But if he should decide he wants a gun, Hokanson doesn’t have to tempt the federal database—he can just go around it.
“No more than two miles from me is the state fairground,” he said. “I’m sure you’ve heard of the gun-show loophole. Now even if I’m in that database, I could just go to the state fairgrounds to buy a gun there, too. It doesn’t make any sense.”
He recalled an episode of the McLaughlin Group (where I’m a panelist) after the shooting in Tucson that killed six people and gravely wounded Congresswoman Gabby Giffords. The debate centered on the need for background checks to identify people with criminal backgrounds or mental illness.
“I was sitting on my bed and I heard Pat Buchanan say they already do that, and I’m thinking there are enormous holes in that database,” he said. The gun-show loophole allows sellers to bypass the background check that would identify people with criminal backgrounds or with serious mental illness.
Efforts to close the loophole have failed in Washington, but have gained momentum in the states. Colorado passed a background-check law, and in Washington state this November, voters will vote on competing measures. Initiative 594 would close the gun-show loophole; Initiative 591, backed by the NRA, would ban any statewide gun-safety restrictions unless passed on the federal level.
“I’m not going to take a position on gun control but people who are mentally ill… and they’re out in society, doing treatment as an outpatient, and it’s been determined that I’m a danger to myself or others, it’s still easy to get a gun,” says Hokanson.
Lying on that ATF form was a felony, “and if the statute of limitations hasn’t expired, I shall gladly take my punishment if it helps prevent future tragedies,” he said in a recent Facebook post.
Keeping quiet about what he knows would be the greater transgression.