Locked Up for Being Sick: Mentally Ill Man Sentenced 8 Years in Federal Prison for Firearms Violations

There’s no question that Des Moines, Iowa resident David Anthony Tumea had serious mental health problems in 2012.

There is also no question that Tumea had a bizarre proclivity for collecting, making, and possessing anything that could be used as a weapon.

Obsession with Weapons

In 2002, Tumea was convicted for the possession of an unregistered firearm. As part of that investigation, the police discovered that he possessed, according to a January 14, 2016 decision by the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals, “books about evasion and making weapons, a handgun with ammunition, a blowgun with darts, two spiked instruments that could attach to one’s wrists, nunchucks, a nearly seven-inch knife, a seven-foot length of fuse, and homemade weapons including C-4, napalm, and a shotgun.”

This collection of weapons whose purpose, considered collectively along with other factors discussed in the case, certainly demonstrate that Tumea had mental health issues. And at that time he resisted any efforts to get him mental health treatment.

Mentally Ill Blamed for Gun Violence

While most individuals with mental health issues will never direct violence toward other individuals and the community at large, those who do (such as the Virginia Tech, the Aurora Theatre, and the Tucson shooters) create a legitimate demand that individuals with documented mental health issues not be allowed to purchase, or in any way possess firearms, ammunition, explosives, or any homemade weapons or destructive devices.

It was recently announced that police and courts in the State of Maine have in recent years submitted more than 3,000 mental health records to the FBI’s background check database to keep guns out of the hands of “potentially dangerous people.”

This action by Maine officials is part of a quiet campaign by states since the December 14, 2012 horrific Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting to provide the federal background check database with sufficient information to prevent individuals with documented mental health issues from purchasing weapons.

This brings us full circle back to David Tumea.

In November 2012, the Des Moines police were conducting a drug trafficking investigation that produced Tumea’s name. The police executed a search warrant at his residence. Once again the Eighth Circuit describes what was discovered: “ … a book about making homemade firearms, a double-threaded pipe, two twelve-gauge shotgun shells, and a piece of paper containing a photograph of a homemade firearm and sketches.”

Holes in the System

Subsequent to this search, investigators determined that Tumea had the 2002 firearms conviction. Why this information was not known by investigators before their November 2012 search of his residence was not explained by the Eighth Circuit.

In any event, the following month (December) the police executed a second warrant at Tumea’s residence and discovered the following:

“ … In the living room, agents recovered a rubber mallet, a modified nail, three unmodified nails, and a smooth-bore pipe with a pipe plug. When the smooth-bore pipe and pipe-plug were assembled, a twelve-gauge shotgun shell placed in the pipe, and a modified nail placed in the plug, a person could fire the shell from the pipe by striking the nail with the rubber mallet.”

Homemade Firearms

Investigators had an expert assemble and test the device. It was the expert’s opinion that the device constituted a “firearm” under the National Firearms Act.

A federal grand jury indicted Tumea on one count of unlawful possession of ammunition by a convicted felon and one count of possession of an unregistered firearm.

While Tumea was awaiting trial on these charges, and after he posted bail, the police conducted yet another search of his residence. This time they “discovered a baseball bat and knife near the door of Tumea’s residence. Tumea stated that those items, and a machete also located in his home, were there to protect against law enforcement officers illegally entering his residence.”

Pretrial Conduct Doesn’t Help

The police decided to monitor Tumea’s pretrial conduct. They saw him hide “a knife designed to look like a carabiner in the bushes outside of the federal courthouse before he entered for a pretrial hearing.”

A jury ultimately convicted Tumea on both counts charged in the indictment. While the guilty verdict as being read in open court, “Tumea tried to swallow a pill containing tetrahydrocannabinol (a chemical found in marijuana), causing a disruption in the court room.”

Adhering to the U.S. Sentencing Guidelines, a Presentence Investigation Report recommended, based on Tumea’s offense level and criminal history, that a sentence in the range of 77 to 96 months of imprisonment be imposed.

Tumea’s attorneys requested a downward variance, citing both his criminal history and current offenses as being nonviolent, and that he had suffered from anxiety, depression and schizophrenia all his life.

8 Years in Federal Prison

U.S. District Court Judge Stephanie M. Rose considered Tumea’s nonviolent background and his mental health issues, in conjunction with the sentencing factors spelled out in 18 U.S.C. § 3553(a), before rejecting his downward variance request and imposing two concurrent 96-month terms of imprisonment.

Conditions of Supervised Release

Judge Rose then ordered that Tumea be under supervised release for three years following his release from prison. She ordered two strict “special conditions” as part of that supervised release; namely, and firstly, that he not possess “any object that could be used as a weapon if such an object is designed to conceal its true nature—such as the carabiner knife seized in this case.”

Secondly, Tumea was prohibited from possessing “other dangerous items that are designed to be, or easily convert to, a dangerous weapon, including but not limited to: nun-chucks, baseball bats, large knives, butterfly knives, any and all firearms and explosives, crow bars, bows and arrows, machetes, axes, brass knuckles, throwing stars, any homemade chemical compounds, any and all other spray, mace, tasers, daggers, chain saws, grappling hooks, any animal that is trained to attack, swords, spears, bayonets, scythe sic], whips, and anything similar to this kind of weaponry.”

Appeal of Special Conditions

Tumea argued on appeal that Judge Rose went too far with her second special condition.

While the Eighth Circuit upheld the first special condition, the appeal court agreed with Tumea that the broad, expansive language of the second condition would not allow him to possess “everyday items” that he legitimately needed to use. These items would include “scissors, letter openers, box cutters, and tennis racquets …”

The Eighth Circuit ordered the following modification of the second special condition:

“Under the circumstances here, to avoid a ‘greater deprivation of liberty than is reasonably necessary,’ … we believe the special condition should be modified to allow for the possession of otherwise-prohibited items with prior approval of the probation office. Such a modification would permit Tumea to possess ‘everyday items’ that could be ‘converted’ easily to dangerous weapons, if he notifies the probation office in advance and secures approval. To secure approval, Tumea must show the probation office (or the district court as warranted) that there is a legitimate purpose for possession of the item and that his possession of the item would not present an unreasonable risk to the safety or probation officers or others. An item-by-item prior approval requirement involves some inefficiencies, but Tumea’s record of possessing dangerous weapons and the need to protect public safety in light of Tumea’s history justifies use of that mechanism here. We therefore modify the challenged condition of release by adding the clause—‘Except with prior approval of the probation office,’’—at the beginning of the condition.”

The Tumea case illustrates the danger when one extreme is used to combat another extreme.

David Anthony Tumea has extreme mental health disorders. That is evident by his criminal and personal histories. But Judge Rose’s second special condition was also too extreme. Her special conditions would have prohibited Tumea from owning a can opener needed to open a can of pork n’ beans. It would have effectively placed him in a stone-aged setting in the modern world.

We get it. David Anthony Tumea should not be allowed to own or possess a firearm, the Second Amendment notwithstanding.

Treatment for Mental Illness

Judge Bright concurred with the panel’s modification order, but suggested that the “Bureau of Prisons to arrange for treatment of Tumea’s mental illness while incarcerated and for continuance, if necessary, after Mr. Tumea’s release.”

We agree with Judge Bright: the federal government has eight years in which to treat David Tumea’s mental illness. That is the reasonable thing to do. Trying to impose a “weapons control” plan on him that is so extreme as to prevent ownership of a tennis racquet is not, we feel, a legitimate governmental response to guns and mental health.

Prison No Place for Mentally Ill

Mr. Tumea suffers from mental illness and has been resistant to treatment. This is why he now faces forced mental health treatment in prison. It is a very unfortunate situation, but one repeated in the county jails and prisons nationwide. We only hope that Mr. Tumea receives proper treatment while incarcerated and when released will adhere to his treatment plan so he might regain a functioning life as a free man. A far greater hope is that the mentally ill nationwide will identified, embraced and treated in a compassionate manner to avoid others like Tumea from slipping into the abyss. Prison is no place to offer treatment to the mentally ill.