Massacre Puts Spotlight On Law To Seize Guns From Mentally Unstable

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.

'Going Postal'

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.

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