6:00 PM EST, December 22, 2012
Here are a few items from Connecticut's annals of guns and mental illness:
—A man who once was arrested for weapon violations was reported to Berlin police in 2004 by his landlord for having allegedly said, "I am going to kill myself and take a few people with me." Police obtained a court warrant and seized 18 guns from the man in March 2004. They were returned in March 2006.
—East Haven police received a report in 2007 that a man had threatened to "go postal" on his ex-girlfriend. The man was in the employee assistance program at work because of a threat to bring a gun there and shoot people. Five guns were seized under a warrant in July 2007 and ordered by the court to be sold a month later.
—Glastonbury police received a report in 2007 of a woman telling her psychotherapist that she had "a plan and a gun," and had previously threatened to kill herself and her husband. Police seized 34 weapons and a large cache of ammunition in June 2007; the guns were returned in October 2007.
—A man called New Milford police in 2008 "to report strange sightings, including trucks coming out of the ground and shape-changing trailers on his property," and threatened to shoot people in the trailers. Four guns were seized in January 2008, and were returned to him in April 2008.
Those are among cases cited in a 2009 study of how the state's gun-seizure law was working 10 years after it went onto the books in 1999. The law empowers police to obtain warrants from a judge to confiscate firearms from people who have not committed any crime with them but who are displaying signs that they have become mentally unstable, and might shoot themselves or someone else. From October 1999 to May 2009, the law enabled police departments to apply for 277 court warrants and seize more than 2,000 guns, sometimes in small arsenals of dozens at a time, according to the study by the General Assembly's nonpartisan Office of Legislative Research.
The law has probably saved lives, officials believe.
But, as the examples demonstrate, some people who exhibit extremely unstable and threatening behavior get their guns back after a court hearing, and now some are saying the law is not only under-utilized by police departments, but also is not strong enough – especially after a 20-year-old man with mental troubles, Adam Lanza, used a Bushmaster semiautomatic rifle to kill 20 first-graders and six women on Dec. 14 at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown. The Bushmaster was one of several guns owned by Lanza's mother, Nancy, with whom he lived in Newtown. Adam Lanza killed his mother embarking on the school massacre that ended with his suicide.
The gun-seizure law was passed a year after the 1998 Connecticut Lottery headquarters shootings, in which a disgruntled employee killed four supervisors and then himself. Under the law, police apply to a judge for a warrant to seize a person's guns, after assembling facts to establish probable cause to believe there's an imminent risk of that person harming himself or someone else. Once guns are seized, a judge conducts a hearing within 14 days and, based on evidence and arguments, orders police to either return the guns to their owner or to hold them for up to a year. Police can obtain extensions beyond the initial one-year holding period.
More than a week after the tragedy at Sandy Hook school, a couple of state legislators have begun to talk about revising or expanding the law. For example, a deputy House Republican leader, Arthur O'Neill of Southbury, said last week that because Lanza was not the legal owner of the two pistols and the assault-style rifle that he carried into the school, it's not clear whether they could have been seized under the law — even if a citizen had reported to police that he appeared troubled and posed a risk. When the General Assembly opens its five-month session on Jan. 9, lawmakers may consider extending the seizure law's reach to guns that could be used by a household member who doesn't own them, O'Neill said.
The gun-seizure law is only one piece of the puzzle facing legislators as they try to address gun control and school children's safety in the wake of the Newtown killings. But it's a big enough piece to make it worth looking at the results of the 2009 study, which found that gun seizures were upheld after full hearings in the vast majority of cases, the study found. The study had limitations, including its listing of only about 150 dispositions for the 277 seizure cases. Among those dispositions: seized guns remained held by authorities in 80 cases, they were returned in 22, transferred to a third party in 19, destroyed in 17 and sold in 9.
Here – from the study – are some additional examples of people from whom weapons were seized, sometimes in considerable numbers, and the reasons for those seizures:
—A man who told his wife, while holding a telescopic scope for a rifle, "one shot, one kill, never miss your target" and placed a pistol on her side of the bed. Thirty-seven guns were seized in April 2001 and held for one year before being returned in that Meriden case.
—A man who made threats to shoot his ex-girlfriend at least 10 times; 11 guns were seized in September 2005 and turned over to relatives in March 2008 in that Milford case.
—A man who told his probation officer that "his pick needs a new handle," he intended to "play softball … if you know what I mean," and that he had a "weapons permit if you know what I mean." Twenty-nine guns were seized in April 2004 and returned in June 2004 in that Monroe case.
—A man who pointed a gun at children trespassing on his property. Ten guns were seized in June 2002 and returned in September 2004 in that Seymour case.
—A man who threatened to blow up his place of employment and whose computer browser history showed visits to websites dealing with workplace shootings. Three guns were seized in August 2008; the disposition of that Seymour case was unclear.
—A man who gave a loaded gun to his 15-year-old daughter during an argument and told her to kill him. One gun was seized in February 2000 and destroyed in May 2001 in that Simsbury case.
—A man who told his doctor he wanted to kill his ex-wife; he had previously locked his estranged wife in the bedroom for 45 minutes and brandished a gun at her, threatening to shoot her. Thirty-five guns and other weapons were seized in June 2000; the guns were returned in September 2003 in that Torrington case.
—A man who was facing foreclosure had exhibited "paranoid, delusional behavior," had "a history of strange behavior with neighbors" and had sent police a "rambling letter." Thirty-one guns and thousands of rounds of ammunition were seized in September 2006. Police were still holding the guns in 2008; disposition of the West Hartford case was unclear.
—A man who sent an email in 2006 to then-Gov. M. Jodi Rell, stating that "I have lost everything," and whose treating doctor considered him potentially suicidal. One gun was seized in June 2005 in that West Hartford case, and was returned two months later.
—A deputy sheriff who drunkenly pursued a black couple on the highway, directing racial slurs and gunshots at them. Seven guns were seized in November 1999 and destroyed in May 2002 in that state police case.
—A woman who threatened to shoot a co-worker between the eyes and had previously brandished a gun at another co-worker. Six guns were seized in January 2003 and returned in April 2005 in that state police case.
Use of the seizure law was uneven in the 169 towns and cities of Connecticut from Oct. 1, 1999, to May 31, 2009, the period covered by the study. Sixty municipal departments and the state police reported applying for warrants during that span. The state police ranked first in usage, employing it 43 times, while West Hartford was second with 31.
James Strillacci, who was West Hartford police chief at the time, but since has retired, said in an interview last week that one reason he used it so much was that he had worked with state legislators to create it. "Since I was involved in the drafting of the bill, I got on a head start on it and it was up and running," he recalled.
Strillacci advocates much stronger gun control than now is in effect, and he said the laws in Connecticut and other states amount to "nibbling around the edges," rather than striking at the heart of the gun problem.
He called the gun-seizure law "a good small step to take," but added that "it hasn't worked as well as it ought to." That, he said, is because "the thresholds are really high" to convince a judge to take away someone's guns in the absence of a crime, and it's "labor-intensive" for police to gather the facts needed.
The study acknowledged some of its limitations. "There is no mandate for police departments to compile or report gun seizure data," it said, and several large cities – including Bridgeport, Hartford and New London – did not indicate whether they had applied for gun-seizure warrants. Stamford and New Haven reported using the law only once each, the study said.
Strillacci said that it's harder for police in the big cities because their resources are stretched thin and much investigative and administrative effort is required to document the case for a gun seizure. "If you are running from shooting to shooting, you don't have a lot of time" or personnel to do the legwork and paperwork, he said.
Strillacci said that if it were made easier to seize guns under the law, it wouldn't harm gun owners' rights – because, in his view, the worst that happens is that a judge reverses the initial seizure after a hearing, and the gun owner gets his weapons back after "a couple of weeks." Meanwhile, a dangerous situation may have been defused, he said.
The report says: "The judge (1) must, when assessing probable cause, consider recent acts of violence, threatening, or animal cruelty and (2) may, when assessing imminent risk, consider such factors as reckless gun use or display, violent threats, alcohol abuse, illegal drug use, and prior involuntary psychiatric confinement."
The report found that the most frequent reasons that police gave for their gun-seizure warrants were the risk of suicide and threats of murder. The most likely person to make a complaint leading to a gun seizure was a spouse. Those most at risk in these cases were more likely to be female, typically a wife or girlfriend. In the 277 cases in which police said a person posed a risk, it was a male 256 times and a woman on 21 occasions.
Courant senior information specialist Tina Lender contributed to this report.
Jon Lender is a reporter on The Courant's investigative desk, with a focus on government and politics. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org, 860-241-6524, or c/o The Hartford Courant, 285 Broad St., Hartford, CT 06115 and find him on Twitter@jonlender.
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