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  • Writer's pictureKatrina Brees

After mother's suicide, Katrina Brees fights for 'no guns' self-registry

By Richard A. Webster | Posted September 27, 2018

Katrina Brees sits next to two photo mosaics by artist Josh Hailey of her mother, Donna Nathan, in her Bywater apartment on July 27, 2018. Nathan took her own life in Audubon Park on June 26 of this year. (Photo by Brett Duke, | The Times-Picayune)

Katrina Brees stared at the ingredients to her mother’s suicide. 

On the coffee table in her Bywater apartment sat a box of bullets. Five were missing from the 25-round pack. A Smith & Wesson gun case – empty of its weapon – held an instruction manual, a receipt for $530.07 and a gun-shop business card with the slogan “because your safety matters.” The .38-caliber revolver remained in the possession of the New Orleans

Police Department. 

It had been only two weeks since her mother, Donna Nathan, killed herself. Brees said she and her family did everything they could think to try to save her. They paid for the best private mental health care available in New Orleans. They provided her a beautiful house in the Riverbend neighborhood to give her a sense of stability and security. Nathan’s partner of 12 years even took a leave of absence from his job to care for her full-time.

Through the numerous hospitalizations and suicide threats, they loved and supported her as best they could.

But nothing they did could prevent the 67-year-old Nathan from leaving her home on the morning of June 26 and driving to a Gretna gun shop, where she purchased the .38-caliber revolver and bullets. By the time her boyfriend called police to report her missing, it was too late. 

A photograph of Donna Nathan is seen on a table at Patrick Burke's home in New Orleans on August 7, 2018. Burke was Nathan's partner for 12 years before she took her own life in June of this year. (Photo by Brett Duke, | The Times-Picayune)

Eight hours after Nathan bought the first and only gun she ever owned in her life, police found her body next to an oak tree in Audubon Park. She had shot herself in the mouth. On the ground was a handwritten note addressed to her boyfriend that said, simply: “I’m sorry. I love you.”

Nathan was the sixth person in Brees’ family to die by suicide. Brees, 40, picked up one of the bullets from her coffee table and wondered if one day this would be her fate. 

“Pretty much my whole life, she used to say to me, ‘Be grateful you have a good brain.’ I think she just got tired,” Brees said of her mother’s 30-year battle with bipolar disorder. “I hate to say it like this, but the end of that line is the gun store. She had nothing but access to firearms as relief.”

Brees, whose given last name is Nathan, is not related to Saints quarterback Drew Brees’ family. 

In Louisiana – a state with some of the least restrictive gun laws in the country, and where the mental health system has been gutted by years of budget cuts and hospital closures –  there were 677 suicides in 2016. Of those, 440– 65 percent – were by firearms. 

Nationwide, nearly 23,000 people killed themselves with guns that same year, accounting for 51 percent of all suicides, and more than twice the number of firearm-related homicides. 

There are many ways people attempt to kill themselves, but no weapon of self-destruction is as brutally efficient as a gun. Nearly 90 percent of suicide attempts with firearms are fatal, compared to 3 percent or less for other common methods such as overdosing or wrist-cutting, according to the Brady Campaign, a national group that advocates for gun control laws to reduce violent deaths.

Katrina Brees looks over a box that once contained a .38-caliber Smith & Wesson gun, and a case of bullets in her Bywater apartment in New Orleans on July 27, 2018. The items were found in her mother's car near Audubon Park. Her mother, Donna Nathan, fatally shot herself June 26, 2018. (Photo by Brett Duke, | The Times-Picayune)

Brees refuses to accept that this is an inevitable end for people struggling with mental illness or that nothing can be done to prevent some of those deaths. She insists her mother, if given the opportunity, would have made a different decision during her more lucid moments. 

Suicide is often an impulsive decision made in a moment of extreme despair or psychosis. Only 10 percent of those who survive an attempt later kill themselves, indicating an innate will to live, experts say. When firearms are used, however, there are few second chances. 

That’s why Brees is advocating for the creation of a voluntary registry for people who believe they might be a danger to themselves or others. Those who sign up temporarily suspend their Second Amendment rights, making it illegal for licensed gun dealers to sell them firearms. The idea is similar to the self-exclusion lists for gambling addicts that ban them from casinos. 

A “no guns” self-registry was recently approved in Washington state and is under consideration in five others. Fredrick Vars, a law professor at the University of Alabama who first came up with the concept, called it a “powerful expression of (people’s) autonomy and will to live.”

Brees is now determined to honor the memory of her mother by making Louisiana only the second state to enact such a registry.

“It’s pretty obvious suicide is how people in my family die. And it’s obvious that access to firearms increases your chances of dying,” Brees said. “For people like me and my mom, having the option to opt out of being able to purchase a firearm could save our lives. It could have saved her life and the grief of our family.”

Katrina Brees stands with her brother, Daniel Nathan, during a memorial for their mother, Donna Nathan, at the Tree of Life in Audubon Park on July 21, 2018. Nathan took her own life nearby on June 26. (Photo by Brett Duke, | The Times-Picayune)

Brees, a prominent member of the New Orleans arts community and founder of the Krewe of Kolossos and the Bearded Oysters marching club, was at an artist’s residency in West Virginia when her father called to break the news of her mother’s death. It was painful, but not a surprise, she said. 

The last time Brees saw Nathan was for Mother’s Day. Her mother had already endured two psychiatric hospitalizations by that point in the year, and was a few weeks away from her third. Nathan was also suffering from a host of physical ailments including tremors, headaches, insomnia and nausea. 

“It was really sad to see and really painful. It was like she was 100 years old all of a sudden,” Brees said. “I told my boyfriend, ‘I don’t think I’m going to see my mother again. I think this is it.’”

What did surprise Brees, however, was that her mother used a firearm to kill herself. Nathan was vehemently opposed to guns. Last October, she changed her Facebook profile to a picture of a gun with a red slash through it. But once police returned Nathan’s possessions to her family, which included her cellphone, her choice of a gun made sense. 

Among Nathan’s last search topics on her phone was “how to hang yourself.” When Brees typed those words into her computer and hit enter, she was taken aback by the breadth and detail of information available. She found multiple sites and blogs providing meticulous, step-by-step instructions, including the most effective type of ligature to use, the most lethal heights from which to fall, and the expected time it will take to lose consciousness and die. 

The instructions, however, came with explicit warnings that if done improperly, an attempted suicide by hanging is likely to result in paralysis or permanent brain damage. There is only one sure way to kill yourself, the sites advised: a gun. 

Brees believes that once her mother read this, it led to her final online search: “Gun shops in New Orleans.” The shop she ultimately chose was among the top five results. 

“I looked at the reviews of the store and they had very good customer service,” Brees said. “I’m glad they were nice to my mother, and I’m glad they treated her well. I’m glad that the last people that my mother saw were super polite to her.”

One question lingered though: How could a person who had been institutionalized three times for being suicidal, and whose hands shook so badly she could barely write her own name, purchase a firearm? 

Donna Nathan's partner, Patrick Burke, photographed August 7, 2018, at the home they shared on Zimpel Street. (Photo by Brett Duke, | The Times-Picayune)

Nathan’s partner, Patrick Burke, said he witnessed her mental and physical health deteriorate at a rapid pace over the past year. The breaking point seemed to be March 2017, when a friend of Nathan’s, who also suffered from mental illness, died after being run over by a train near the intersection of Leake Avenue and Dublin Street. The friend had often talked of suicide, his brother told police. 

“His tragic exit stunned her,” Burke wrote in his journal, shortly after Nathan’s death. “Perhaps it bore the boney finger that pointed her way saying this was where all their kind were headed. She could feel the gravel slip beneath her feet.”

Between February and May of this year, Nathan committed herself to the hospital three times, afraid she was on the verge of killing herself. Burke took a leave of absence from his job to take care of her, but each commitment “felt more intense,” he said. 

“She was coming apart at the seams. The center wasn’t holding.”

Hopelessness seemed to set in June 8, when news broke that Anthony Bourdain committed suicide. Nathan adored the celebrity chef, Burke said. If this towering, successful man couldn’t make it, what chance did she have?

“The girl was absolutely miserable,” Burke said. “Thirty years of depression. She had been through it over and over and she finally got to 67 years old and said, ‘No more.’ She was tired.”

The last time Burke saw Nathan was on the morning of June 26. She told him she was going to the mall to buy clothes. Looking back, Burke said, it was as if someone greeted her at the door as she left their house and “whispered in her ear, ‘Come with me. I’m going to tell you what to do now.’ And she went and did this completely irrational thing that made no sense.

“She and I were so much in love. It wasn’t enough.”

Nathan, who had attempted to kill herself decades earlier by other means – trying to overdose on pills and running her car with the garage door closed – headed to the gun store. 

According to her family and the time stamped on her sales receipt, she left her home at 9 a.m. and 105 minutes later, walked out of the Gretna gun shop with the revolver and 25 bullets.

On August 16, 2018, Patrick Burke plants flowers next to a tree in Audubon Park where his partner, Donna Nathan, fatally shot herself June 26. (Photo by Brett Duke, | The Times-Picayune)

In Louisiana, purchasing a gun from a licensed dealer is relatively easy. You need only produce valid ID showing you are 21 or older and pass a background check, which excludes people convicted of certain violent crimes.

There is no mandated waiting period as required in states such as Illinois, which imposes a three-day-wait between the purchase of a handgun and its delivery. That delay – designed as a “cooling off” period to allow homicidal or suicidal thoughts to pass – has been shown to decrease gun homicides by 17 percent and gun suicides by nearly 11 percent, according to a 2017 report by the Harvard Business School.  

People with a mental illness can only be denied the right to buy a gun in Louisiana if they have gone through a judicial process in which a judge determined they were suicidal, homicidal or gravely disabled, and ordered them to be involuntarily committed for treatment.

People who voluntarily commit themselves, as Nathan did, are not prohibited from purchasing a gun. Neither are people who are brought involuntarily to the hospital by police and placed under an emergency psychiatric hold by a physician or the coroner’s office. This is in contrast to other states, such as Florida, that prohibit anyone involuntarily committed, whether by a judicial process or not, from purchasing a firearm. 

Louisiana’s nearly unlimited access to guns shocked and angered Brees. It was clear, she said, that politicians were unlikely to take meaningful action when it came to people suffering from mental illness and access to firearms. So, she thought, why not put the power in the hands of the individual? 

Two days after her mother’s body was found, Brees published a post on her Facebook page announcing the seed of an idea: “My mom bought a gun in New Orleans on Tuesday and drove to (Audubon Park) and opened the box and shot herself. 

“I'm telling you all because gun control is not only about homicide, it is twice as likely to be a suicide. People suffering from bipolar and depression have no way to protect themselves from a suicidal gun purchase in Louisiana. 

“I wish my mom could have registered herself as being unfit to buy a gun. She would have signed it years ago to protect herself and our family. I'm sorry to be so raw, I feel raw. I can't believe how impossible it was to get my mom help and how easy it was for her to buy a gun.”

Unbeknownst to Brees, four years earlier, an Alabama law professor named Fredrick Vars had much the same idea.

Katrina Brees holds one of the bullets found in her mother's car in Audubon Park after her mother, Donna Nathan, took her own life June 26, 2018. (Photo by Brett Duke, | The Times-Picayune)

Vars suffers from bipolar disorder and has, at several times in his life, experienced suicidal thoughts. If he had access to guns during any of those moments, he said, he would likely be among the 15 percent of bipolar people in the U.S. who kill themselves. 

“People who have never been severely depressed cannot understand what it’s like. You lose joy, you lose hope, and you lose the ability to make rational decisions,” he said. “However, like almost all people with mental illness, I have periods of clarity. During these periods, I want to protect myself against future dark days.”

That motivation to live led Vars to the idea of a “no guns” self-registry. This is how it works: People can, for any reason, choose to put their names on a do-not-sell list, thereby suspending their ability to purchase firearms from licensed sellers. 

Once they present photo identification proving their identity, their names are entered into the National Instant Criminal Background System, which is used to identify people prohibited from buying guns. Those on the list can remove their names at any moment, but there is a waiting period of anywhere between 7 to 21 days before they can once again purchase a gun. 

As an added layer of security, people on the list can provide the email addresses of friends or loved ones they want the state to immediately notify should the person listed ask to be removed from the registry.

Vars and Yale University professor Ian Ayres wanted to test this idea. So, they surveyed 200 people in Alabama receiving psychiatric care, asking if they would give up the right to buy a gun to protect themselves or others. More than 46 percent said yes. A second survey found that a third of the general population would do the same. 

“I think people underestimate the agency of individuals with mental illness and say, ‘Oh, they wouldn’t do that. They wouldn’t give away that right to buy a gun,’” Vars said. “But if you have mental illness and have been suicidal and then gotten better, you instantly see the appeal.”

A page from the personal journal of Donna Nathan, eight days before she fatally shot herself. (Photo by Brett Duke, | The Times-Picayune)

Washington this year became the first state to pass legislation creating a “no guns” self-registry. The bill passed the state Senate 36-13, the House 77-20 and goes into effect Jan. 1, 2019. Similar legislation is under consideration in California, Massachusetts, Tennessee and Wisconsin. 

In Alabama, State Senator Trip Pittman sponsored a bill this year that would have established such a registry. Pittman, a lifelong member of the NRA, said the gun rights organization notified him that it would not oppose the legislation, which cleared the Senate judiciary committee but ran out of time in the regular session.

The NRA declined to comment for this story.

The only opposition Pittman said he received was from people who may not have been familiar with the proposal and feared it was a Trojan Horse designed to chip away at their Second Amendment rights. Eventually, he predicts it will pass in his home state. 

Vars believes the registry has garnered bipartisan support for two main reasons: it does not require significant funding as it uses the existing federal background check system. And second, it is completely voluntary. The registry doesn’t involve the forced confiscation of guns or the eroding of anyone’s Second Amendment rights, except for people who willingly choose to suspend those rights.

The main objection raised by the NRA during the Washington process was that people could be coerced into signing up for the registry during a legal proceeding, or as a condition of employment or obtaining services, Vars said. So, proponents added language to the law making such coercion illegal.

“If you’re serious about giving people individual choice and liberty, you should be in favor of this idea,” said Vars. He wants to enact the registry in every state, convinced it would prevent a large percentage of gun suicides. 

That goal received an unexpected push one day in August when the Alabama professor received a call from a woman in New Orleans who said her mother had just killed herself with a .38-caliber revolver.

Katrina Brees, photographed July 27, 2018, holds her marching jacket where she writes the names of loved ones who have passed away. (Photo by Brett Duke, | The Times-Picayune)

Brees and her mother had a tradition when someone they loved passed away. They would write the person’s names on the inside of the jackets they wore during second lines or Mardi Gras. Then, at some point during the parade, mother and daughter would make eye contact and know, without saying a word, it was time. They would come together in the middle of the street and dance one final dance with the spirit of their departed friend. 

“All the traditions I had were traditions she built for me. Those were the best moments I had with her,” Brees said. “It made me think how smart she was and how our traditions as a family were based in creativity and finding things that helped us in times that were tough.”

Brees took out her white marching jacket and laid it out on a table in her apartment. On the inside lining, in faded and blurred ink, were the names of lost friends and family members: Nick, Rikki, Dusty, Herman Leonard, Jamie Galloway, John Burr Jr., and Grampa. On the bottom left hand side, was the newest addition: Mom.

“If I don’t think about the activism and advocacy and the value and the goodness this can bring, the positive legacy this can create,” Brees said of her mother’s death, “it’s way too devastating to even examine.”

Katrina Brees and Jay Mazza second line in honor of Brees' mother, Donna Nathan, in New Orleans on July 21, 2018. (Photo by Brett Duke, | The Times-Picayune)

Shortly after Brees wrote her initial Facebook post about the potential of a voluntary no-guns registry, she came across Vars’ work and reached out to him. He was immediately struck by her story and they agreed to work together. 

“I think her mother was just the sort of ideal candidate for the proposal. She was very anti-gun, knowing her own precarious mental health and history. Why wouldn’t she have signed up?” Vars said. “This is a particular life that could have been saved and having her daughter who is incredibly eloquent and well-spoken and a motivated advocate conveying that message, I am incredibly excited.”

Brees is not a stranger to organizing or activism. She has produced more than 200 Mardi Gras parades and founded I Heart Louisiana, which provides eco-friendly throws for Carnival krewes, otherwise known as the “greening of the Gras.” She suggested to Vars that they bring her community of artists into the fold to create a more robust and innovative messaging campaign, not only in Louisiana but across the country. 

Brees then contacted Victoria Coy, director emeritus of the Louisiana Violence Reduction Coalition, an organization that, among other things, lobbies for stricter gun control legislation. Coy said she was familiar with Vars’ work and the idea of a no-guns registry but had yet to consider it for Louisiana. That changed after she spoke with Brees.

“Katrina’s ability as a survivor of gun violence to articulate the need and the necessity and to put her own personal story on a political stage in a way that helps others is really inspiring,” Coy said. “So, when she came to me with that skill set, I said we have to take this opportunity and run with it. She said her mom would have wanted that which was really powerful to me. She’s working from a really pure place.”

Katrina Brees, right, stands in a circle with family and friends around the Tree of Life in Audubon Park during a memorial for her mother, Donna Nathan, on July 21, 2018. (Photo by Brett Duke, | The Times-Picayune)

Coy is in the process of meeting with stakeholders in the mental health community, drafting a proposed bill and finding a sponsor, specifically a Republican, to show that suicide prevention is a bipartisan issue. She hopes to have everything lined up so they can introduce a bill in the 2019 legislative session.

She believes it should stand a good chance at becoming law.

“This bill and policy are different because it’s empowering those people to protect themselves. There is no government overreach. There is no boogeyman. There is no stigma here. This is simply giving folks the tools they need to protect themselves, so they can stay healthy,” Coy said. 

This is not just about people suffering from mental illness, she said.

“Even folks who have not received a diagnosis go through times of crisis. What is unique about states like ours that have high gun proliferation rates is that time of crisis is armed.”

After speaking with Vars and Coy, Brees said she began to cry. She asked herself whether she was crying about the loss of her mother. But that wasn’t it. 

“I was crying because I felt so powerful,” she said of her ability to affect change. “It’s an overwhelming feeling. I have all this power and so does everyone else and we’re not using it. To sort of break through it and feel it so purely was really amazing.”

The loss of her mother continues to haunt Brees. Some mornings she wakes up thinking none of it is real. Other days she suffers from “grief attacks,” intense flashes of sorrow and despair. But they are subsiding, she said, and in their place, is the will to honor her mother’s life and fight against the concept that this was all inevitable.

“Everyone is like, ‘Oh, well, your mother is out of her suffering.’ That, somehow, makes it seem like my mother’s suicide was an OK suicide because she had bipolar. That makes sense to people,” Brees said.

“So, which of the suicides aren’t OK with us? Which are the suicides we’re trying to prevent? Are there any we’re trying to prevent? It doesn’t really feel like it when you start diving into it. It’s like no one wants it to happen but we seem to think that people are just destined for it.”

To those who oppose a self-registry, she has a simple question.

“Six people have done this in my family. How about me? Can I sign this? Is that OK with you?”

Katrina Brees, left, and her mother, Donna Nathan, in New Orleans in 2007. (Photo courtesy of Patrick Burke)

The suicide hotline -- 1-800-273-TALK (8255) -- is available 24 hours a day for those in need of assistance.

This story is part of "A Fragile State," a series by | The Times-Picayune's watchdog team examining Louisiana's broken mental health care system.

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