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February 1, 2010

"His mental state was in question."

On January 19, Christopher Bryan Speight, 39, shot and killed eight people inside and around the home he shared with family members in Appomattox, Virginia. His victims were Lauralee Sipe, 38, Speight's sister; Dwayne Sipe, 38, his brother-in-law; Morgan Dobyns, 15, Speight's niece; Joshua Sipe, 4, his nephew; Emily A. Quarles, 15, Morgan's friend; Karen Quarles, 43, Emily's mother; Jonathan L. Quarles, 43, Emily's father; and Ronald "Bo" Scruggs II, 16, Emily’s boyfriend.

More than 150 law enforcement officials arrived on the scene in response to the shootings and combed the nearby woods in search of Speight. During the siege, Speight took down a Virginia State Police helicopter by piercing its fuel tank with six rounds from a high-powered rifle (Speight had participated in National Rifle Association rifle competitions, which he excelled in). Eventually, Speight surrendered to authorities. He has been charged with one count of first-degree murder, with more charges likely coming.

A search of Speight’s house uncovered 17 bombs, including seven homemade grenades, two improvised explosive devices “with chemical irritant attached,” two IED “anti-personnel mines,” two pipe bombs and four more IEDs. Authorities also found more than a dozen firearms (including at least three AR-15 assault rifles and two Chinese-made Uzis) and “large amounts” of ammunition. Night-vision equipment, body armor and a pair of homemade mortar tubes were also found inside the home.

A search of Appomattox County court records has revealed that Speight held a concealed handgun permit, which was renewed on two occasions (in 2004 and 2009) despite his “history of mental breakdowns,” which was well known to his family and their attorney. Speight also apparently legally purchased the guns used in the shootings, and bought and sold firearms through unregulated private transfers (i.e., no background checks, no paperwork).

There were six confirmed mass shootings by concealed handgun permit holders in 2009. Speight becomes the first in 2010.

Those who knew Speight say he may have become fixated on the notion that his sister wanted to oust him from the Appomattox County home passed down to them by their grandparents and mother. Speight was removed as a trustee of the property in 2007 “over concern for his stability.” When family members met with him to discuss the matter, he “talked about booby-trapping his bedroom.” Speight also told friends he heard a “zinging” in his ears following the death of his mother in 2006. As the family attorney, Henry Devening, describes it, “his mental state was in question.” Speight was apparently seeing a therapist to address these issues.

Under Virginia law, individuals are disqualified from obtaining concealed handgun permits for reason of mental health under a narrow set of criteria, including the following: a) If they have been involuntarily committed to a psychiatric institution; b) If they have been adjudicated as “mentally incompetent,” and; c) If they have been acquitted by reason of insanity. Virginia makes no provision for people who do not fall under certain specific criteria but who are nonetheless seriously mentally ill.

Additionally, no investigative authority exists to make sure these disqualifications are detected. The Virginia State Police conduct instant computer background checks to verify mental health information through databases that are missing millions of disqualifying records. This process failed to turn up any information about Speight’s mental health issues.

In his most recent application to renew his concealed handgun permit, filed on January 6 of last year, Speight described himself in court papers as a dependable person who showed pride in his ability to "find ways to get out of problems without using force or violence." The tragic irony of that statement is now apparent.

As Alice Mountjoy, the Government Relations Coordinator of the Virginia Center for Public Safety, recently commented, “When an individual with as tortured a mental health history as Christopher Speight is able to get a concealed handgun permit, it confirms what we have been saying for years ... The screening process [for concealed carry applicants in Virginia] is broken and does little to assure that permit holders are both law-abiding and mentally fit to carry handguns around our families in public.”