Massacre Puts Spotlight On Law To Seize Guns From Mentally Unstable

—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.

Inconsistent Use

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 jlender@courant.com, 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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