Gun seizures under a first-of-its-kind Connecticut law passed in 1999 have increased dramatically since 2008, according to preliminary research from Duke University, Yale University, and the University of Connecticut.
The law was passed in response to the 1998 Connecticut Lottery shooting and it allows police to seize weapons from individuals if law enforcement has probable cause to believe that person is an imminent risk of hurting someone or themselves.
“This was the first law of its kind in the nation that allowed seizure of a gun before the owner had committed an act of violence,” Dr. Michael A. Norko, a researcher at the Yale School of Medicine’s Department of Psychiatry, told the state Criminal Justice Policy Advisory Commission in late October.
Since 1999 only one state — Indiana in 2006 — has passed a similar statute. But Norko said other states are increasingly debating the policy. Norko and colleagues at Yale, Duke, and UConn have recently started researching the impact of Connecticut’s law using data that is required to be collected under the statute.
From 1999 through 2013, police have used the law to seize guns from residents in 764 cases. But its usage began to climb sharply around 2008. Fifty-three percent have occurred since 2010, according to research published by Norko and Madelon Baranoski of Yale’s Psychiatry Department.
“Right from the start there were around 10 a year, then in 2008 we begin the spike that preceded the Sandy Hook tragedy,” Baranoski told the commission.
“We can’t know for sure why the spike happened but we can hypothesize several things. One, the economic slump began at that time so families were under more pressure,” Baranoski said. The increase has also coincided with high profile mass shootings around the country and has occurred after training changes have made police more aware of the law.
Public awareness of safety risks may have also played a role. Michael Lawlor, Gov. Dannel P. Malloy’s criminal justice adviser, said it may be attributable in part to an increased sense of responsibility among members of the public to say something “if they see something.”
Lawlor, a former state representative who voted for the law in 1999, said he has been surprised by the frequency with which the law has been used.
“I kind of thought it would be once in a blue moon that police would take advantage of it. That was not the case. But I’m even more surprised in recent years the extraordinary growth in the number of these warrants being issued,” he said.
Lawlor said police must investigate and determine that there is an imminent safety risk before seizing a weapon. He said the affidavits for the seizures suggest the law has saved lives.
“It’s clear that there were tragedies averted when this was done. They might have been domestic tragedies, they might have been a suicide, they might have been a mass shooting. But it’s clear many tragedies have been averted,” he said.
During next year’s legislative session, the governor has promised to introduce legislation to expand a different but related policy. The bill would remove firearms from recipients of temporary restraining orders rather than waiting until a hearing before a judge to remove weapons.
The concern is that women who have applied for restraining orders are at significant risk during the period before the hearing when their former partner retains access to guns.
“What we’re saying is, if it’s bad enough to justify a restraining order being issued, it’s bad enough to take the additional precaution of making sure that the weapons . . . can no longer be accessed,” Malloy said in September.
During the presentation in October, Baranoski said that guns were seized from men in 700 of the 764 cases included in the study. She said that “conflict with the significant other was the most common reason that the situation was risky” in instances when a gun was seized from an individual under 30 years old.
Although mental health disorders are a factor police can use for determining risk, mental health status is only one of many factors police can use. Baranoski said she did not consider the state’s firearm seizure law to be a mental health policy.
“It’s for ordinary people who go into crisis. So I don’t think of this as a mental health law, I think of it as a dangerous situation and a crisis law that is another tool that police can use to diffuse a situation that could get a lot worse,” she said.