Tougher gun law with ‘mental health alert’ wasn’t enough to stop Bronx hospital gunman

NEW YORK — Governor Andrew Cuomo felt an urgent need to toughen the state’s gun laws after a troubled young man in neighboring Connecticut killed 20 first-graders and six school staffers in the Sandy Hook massacre in December 2012.

When the Governor signed the NY SAFE Act in January 2013, a top provision called for mental health professionals to report people “when there is reason to believe a patient is likely to engage in conduct that will cause serious harm to themselves or others.”

This element of the law was called a ‘mental health alert’ and information was supposed to be crosschecked against a gun registration database.  A gun owner could lose his weapon, if there were concerns about his or her mental health.

But does information exist in the database before a person even buys a gun?

That question emerged Monday after we learned Dr. Henry Bello—an ex-medical resident at Bronx Lebanon Hospital—was able to buy a rifle in upstate New York, even though he had a history of sexually abusing women. Harassment complaints ultimately pushed him out of Bronx Lebanon, killing his dreams of becoming a licensed M.D.

He threatened to kill his former colleagues when he left the hospital for good. But it’s unlikely this information showed up on any databases that were consulted when Dr. Bello filled out a federal application to buy a rifle in Schenectady County — about 160 miles north of Bronx Lebanon.

When Bello purchased the AM-15 rifle at Upstate Guns and Ammo on Tuesday, June 20, he would have been expected to show valid ID that he was a New York State resident before he could buy the weapon.

He'd also have to fill out a federal form from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms- ATF Form 4473 - so a background check could be done.

One of the questions would ask if Bello had ever been convicted of a felony that sent him to jail or prison for more than a year.

Dr. Bello was able to truthfully check "no" for that answer. He wasn't a convicted felon, even though he had a misdemeanor conviction from 2004. At the time he received a sentence of community service.

"A misdemeanor doesn't disqualify you, doesn't preclude him from purchasing or possessing firearms," said Joe Green, who spent more than 25 years as an agent with ATF.  "The only exception is for a domestic violence case."

Dr. Bello had pleaded guilty in 2004 to unlawful imprisonment for picking a woman up by the crotch and saying "You're coming with me."

He also had a sealed arrest for unlawful surveillance in 2009 and was forced out of Bronx Lebanon Hospital in 2015 amid sexual harassment allegations.

But even with all of that, he was legally able to buy an AM-15, known as a long gun, in New York State.   He was still able to buy the rifle, despite threats he'd made to co-workers when he left the hospital in 2015 that he would come back to kill them.

PIX11 reported exclusively Saturday evening that Bello timed his attack to prevent several residents he used to work with at Bronx Lebanon from transitioning to full-fledged, licensed physicians during a special ceremony planned for this week. If Bello had stayed with the residency program he began in 2014, he would have been transitioning this week with them.

Bello shot three medical students, a patient, and two fellow doctors — killing one of them — before turning the rifle on himself and committing suicide.

A viewer pointed out to PIX11 that an AM-15 rifle does not qualify as an assault weapon, and Joe Green said that's an important distinction. It's also the reason Dr. Bello was able to buy the weapon in New York State after his background check.

"If it doesn't fit the description of an assault rifle," said Joe Green, "It is just another long gun, similar to a hunting rifle.  And a New York State resident does not have to have a permit to purchase or possess a long gun."

People who carry handguns in New York are required to have permits.