RICHMOND, Va. (WWBT) - Within a period of five days last July, two Hanover men who didn’t know one another, each took their lives at Green Top Shooting Range in Hanover County.
Both men had been committed to mental health institutions, multiple times before. Regardless, after filling out a form at the indoor gun range, the firearms were rented and put into the hands of two mentally unstable people.
No laws were broken by the shooting range. Neither federal nor state law requires a background check for gun rentals, if the weapon remains on the property.
It’s something the families of the two men are now fighting to change.
Jon-Christian Carroll, 21, and Aaron Prude, 27, rented weapons while not indicating on the waiver form they signed, that they shouldn’t be in possession of guns. No follow-up background check was done by range employees, since requesting a VCheck through Virginia State Police’s system is only done during a weapons purchase.
The parents of both men say their sons would not have passed a background check. ‘Jon Jon’ Carroll had been involuntarily committed to two different institutions in Central Virginia for mental health reasons, upon returning home from the military last year.
Prude was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia, since he was 17 years old.
“He texted me, ‘I love you very, very much.’ And then 43 minutes later he killed himself,” said Amy Bryant Carroll of the day her son, Jon Jon, took his life.
Jon Jon was the embodiment of a stoic, young man. He joined the United States Marine Corps after graduating Lee-Davis High School in 2017, following in his father’s footsteps by joining the military.
“I was very excited about that...very proud,” said Brad Carroll, Jon Jon’s father.
Brad describes his son as having a strong sense of adventure, sharing many experiences outdoors together. Jon Jon achieved an Eagle Scout badge and a Black Belt in Taekwondo, as well.
Jon Jon was promoted quickly in the Marine Corps, achieving the rank of Lance Corporal. He was set to be deployed overseas on his first mission. But, his parents say he was abruptly honorably discharged.
“He was discharged due to some troubles he was having,” said Brad. “Some mental issues.”
“The (military) psychologist said he wasn’t ‘mission ready,’” said Amy.
The military psychologist also said Jon Jon was hospitalized during his service, under a temporary detention order. Jon Jon’s parents were given little further information.
When their son returned home, his unsettling behavior continued as he increasingly struggled with anxiety and paranoia.
“For about a month, he decided to sleep in his car… just in the Walmart parking lot,” said Amy. “It didn’t make any sense.”
Jon Jon’s parents were left frustratingly in the dark, unable to communicate with his doctors because of privacy laws, and Jon Jon’s own secrecy, as they say he hid medical documents from his family.
On New Year’s Day of 2020, the couple was faced with their son making unnerving comments, while in possession of a gun he was able to buy shortly after exiting the service. Military records of Jon Jon’s mental health situation likely hadn’t transferred over to his civilian file yet, his parents theorized.
Brad and Amy petitioned Hanover County law enforcement to intervene. They took out an emergency custody order, in order to get the firearm away from Jon Jon. He was picked up by officers, and ultimately committed to Poplar Springs Hospital in Petersburg.
“Jon Jon was like, ‘I don’t want to be here. This is ridiculous. You guys are holding me against my will,’” said Brad.
Several months later, Jon Jon was involuntarily committed again, after a suicide attempt, to Central State Hospital.
“They came here and subdued him and took him in,” said Amy.
Several months later, on the morning of July 8, Jon Jon left his home giving no indication of what would happen just hours later.
“He was fine that morning. He was saying, ‘Bye mom. I love you.’ And I was like, ‘Love you, honey. Drive safe.’ That was the last thing I said to him,” said Amy.
Jon Jon headed into a shooting bay at Green Top’s indoor shooting range with a semi-automatic rifle. A police report states he initially did not request any target, and also asked to be moved to a lane further away from other shooters. Jon Jon then turned the rifle on himself.
“We did everything we could to help him. We did,” said Amy through tears.
According to state law, a person loses their right to possess a weapon once they’ve been involuntarily committed to a hospital for mental health issues.
Someone like Aaron Prude, who battled paranoid schizophrenia since he was a teenager, is not allowed to have a firearm.
“He was an excellent student,” said Karen Williams, Aaron’s mother. “He made straight A’s up until his diagnosis.”
It was a life-altering, psychotic break at 17 years old. Karen says her son fought plaguing voices and delusions, even claiming to see dead people. Aaron was ultimately hospitalized and diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia. Doctors told Karen her youngest son’s outlook for a normal life was bleak.
“They said that I should expect that he would never graduate high school, or that he would stay in a group home, and that was extremely hard for me,” she said. “But at the same time I said, ‘Not my son.’”
A mother’s love and support helped Aaron to achieve his GED, get his driver’s license, and hold a job at Fed Ex.
“He got an employee of the month in 2019,” said Karen.
She said her son grew into a man who was big in both stature and compassion.
“He looked at himself as, although he was stricken with schizophrenia, (as if) he was here to help. He loved people,” she said.
But Karen says Aaron had stopped taking his medicine for paranoid schizophrenia a year earlier. He continued counseling, but grew weary of side effects from nine different medications over the years, like intense nausea.
“It made him very frustrated because he felt like he didn’t want to be someone’s guinea pig,” she said, referring to the trial-and-error process that often accompanies medication for mental health issues.
Aaron’s disorder amplified soon after he stopped taking his medicine. She said Aaron heard disparaging voices with whom he’d talk and often argue.
Five days after Jon Jon Carroll walked into Green Top Shooting Range, Karen dropped Aaron off in downtown Ashland. The two were sharing a car, and Aaron wanted to head to a few stores.
“I told him, ‘I love you. Be careful, and I’ll see you soon,’ because I’ll never say goodbye,” said Karen. But that would become the last time Karen spoke to her son.
Aaron found his way to Green Top, and chose a weapon to rent with the help of an employee, according to a police report. He then took his life in a shooting bay.
“It was in the action of just being there, and giving up… ‘the voices are damning me.’ And he just didn’t feel like he had an ability to win,” she said.
Nothing has changed in Aaron’s room, since he’s passed. Karen wears his ashes in a locket around her neck.
“He’s still here,” she said.
Both families are now pushing Virginia legislators to introduce a bill requiring background checks for firearm rentals, the same as would performed during a gun purchase.
“This is not a 2A issue,” said Amy, who says she and her husband are members of a shooting range themselves. “This is about taking guns out of the mentally ill’s hands.”
A 2020 study published in Crisis: The Journal of Crisis Intervention and Suicide Prevention, shows an average of 35 suicides a year at shooting ranges in the United States. Eighty-six percent of those shooting ranges indicated it involved rented firearms.
Guns are also the leading method of suicide, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. More than 57 percent of Virginia suicides used firearms last year.
But Gun Owners of America, an influential gun-rights group in D.C, believes background checks for guns are ineffective in keeping them out of the wrong hands.
“Background checks don’t stop people from harming themselves or others,” said Erich Pratt, senior vice president of Gun Owners of America. “What background checks really do, is infringe upon the rights of the law-abiding… People will always be able to get their hands on firearms. Look at Baltimore and Chicago, which have some of the most stringent laws in the country, and yet they have some of the highest murder rates because bad guys still get guns... You deal with the emotional and spiritual struggles people are dealing with, which is far more effective.”
The owners of Green Top sent NBC12 a statement, stating in part, “Everyone at Green Top has been affected by the tragic events that occurred in July 2020. Once again, we want to express our condolences to the families of the individuals who died, as well as to express concern and support for our customers and team members who may have been affected by these tragic incidents. The safety of our customers is of utmost importance to us.”
Green Top wouldn’t answer specific questions asked by NBC12. After a call to Green Top Shooting Range’s main number, an apparent employee who answered the phone said only paying members can now rent weapons. Walk-in customers must bring their own firearms. Green Top’s website also states that firearm rentals are a “membership perk.”
Multiple sources tell NBC12 that Virginia legislators are working behind the scenes to potentially introduce a bill requiring background checks for gun rentals for the 2021 General Assembly session.
Opponents point out a hurdle for such a bill would be whether that legislation would illegally supersede federal law, in particular the Brady Law, which doesn’t require gun rental background checks.
“A loophole exists,” said Brad. ‘Why am I handing you the (gun rental) form if I’m not willing to take the next step?”
“Something (needs to be) in place to be a safeguard. And now we have two lives that are gone, and no law that has been changed,” said Karen. “I’m hurting every day. I feel empty. My time stopped when he died.”
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