Christine Stuart photo
Jeffrey Swanson (Christine Stuart photo)

HARTFORD, CT — According to a study by researchers at Duke, Yale, and the University of Connecticut, dozens of suicides have likely been prevented by a law that was passed following the mass shooting at the Connecticut Lottery in 1998 allowing police to temporarily remove guns from potentially violent or suicidal people.

Researchers, who were to present their review of 762 gun-removal cases to the Criminal Justice Policy Advisory Commission Thursday, calculated that for every 10 to 20 instances of temporary gun seizures, one suicide was prevented.

“Ten to 20 gun removals to save one life — is that high or is that low?” Jeffrey Swanson, professor in psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the Duke University School of Medicine, said. “That may be for the policy makers to decide. But we’d like to put this information in the hands of the policy makers so they know what’s hanging in the balance of risk and rights when it comes to preventing gun violence.”

Over half of the suicides in the U.S. are completed with guns, and many of those guns are legally obtained. And a “substantial proportion of those at risk for committing violent crimes with guns do not have a record that would prohibit them from purchasing or possessing firearms,” according to the study that will be published in the journal Law and Contemporary Problems.

Courtesy of the study

The Connecticut legislation enacted in 1999 allows officials to remove firearms for up to a year from any person a court finds to be at high-risk of violence or self-harm. Since then, Indiana and California have enacted similar risk-based gun removal laws.

Researchers found that during the first eight years the law was on the books it was used infrequently, fewer than 10 times per year. That changed in 2007 with the mass shooting at Virginia Tech University. Since that time, gun removal cases increased to about 100 per year and the law resulted in a cumulative total of 762 by the end of 2013.

Under Connecticut’s law, police must obtain a civil warrant from a judge with probable cause that the person is at risk of harming themselves or others. A civil court hearing must be held within two weeks to decide whether to return the guns to the owner, or hold the guns for up to a year.

Swanson said the law helps identify people who may be temporarily at increased risk of violence but do not necessarily have a history of violence, involuntary commitment, or a criminal record that would raise flags through point-of-sale background checks. 

“It’s pretty easy to get a gun these days without going through a background check,” Swanson said. “That’s why this kind of risk-based temporary gun removal could be important. It doesn’t depend on just stopping someone from buying a new gun. If they already have 10 at home, that might not do much good.”

Connecticut’s law was driven by concerns about disgruntled people committing violence against others, such as a mass shooting, but, according to researchers, it ended up being used more often by family members and law enforcement concerned about people who might harm themselves.

Of the 762 instances of temporary gun seizures, 95 percent of the people were male with an average age of 47. An average of seven firearms were sequestered per case. Most of the people were not involved in the criminal justice system; 88 percent had no arrests leading to a criminal conviction in the year before or the year after their firearms were temporarily removed, according to the study.

Just 12 percent of the people whose guns were temporarily removed were already receiving public mental health treatment in the year before the guns were seized. At least 29 percent received mental health treatment in the year following their gun seizures, suggesting to researchers that mental health care was an indirect result of the temporary gun removal.

Among the 762 interventions, 21 of the people involved ended up committing suicide — a proportion 40 times higher than the suicide rate among the general population. Fifteen people used methods other than firearms to kill themselves. Six people used guns to kill themselves. All of the gun-related suicides occurred after the person was once again eligible to buy a gun or reclaim weapons that had been held by authorities.

Although 90 percent of suicide attempts are survived, the results are almost always fatal for those who use firearms, Swanson said.

“What if the guns had not been taken away, how many more people would have died?” he said. “We don’t know that for sure. But using information that we have from other studies about the means used in suicide in the U.S. population, and the connections between gun ownership and suicide, we can estimate that the gun-removal policy in Connecticut did save many lives. In effect, it offered a second chance at life for people in deep despair, and even a path to recovery when they got help as a result.”

Christine Stuart photo
Michael Lawlor, the governor’s chief criminal justice adviser (Christine Stuart photo)

Michael Lawlor, the governor’s chief criminal justice adviser, said that when the law was passed they were able to get support from gun rights advocates.

He said it passed the House 103-47 and the Senate 29-6. Lawlor said that even some of the staunchest gun rights advocates in the legislature were able to support the legislation based on all of the safeguards.