Walker Strong / ctnewsjunkie
Rep. Steve Stafstrom with gun control advocates (Walker Strong / ctnewsjunkie)

HARTFORD – In 1999, Connecticut became the first state in the nation to pass what’s called a “red flag” law, or “risk warrant,” but advocates say the law hasn’t kept up with modern society.

The law, which allows law enforcement to seize guns from a home if a person is reported to pose a risk of imminent personal injury to themself or to others, was the result of the mass shooting at the Connecticut Lottery Corporation in 1998.

Judiciary Committee co-chairs Sen. Gary Winfield and Rep. Steve Strafstrom said House Bill 5448 would mark the first update to Connecticut’s “red flag” statutes in over two decades.

Since 1999, 16 states and the District of Columbia have passed similar laws, many of which permit a far broader range of individuals and authorities, such as family members or medical professionals, to seek protective orders and apply for risk warrants.

HB 5448 would see Connecticut join the ranks of 13 other states that currently allow family or household members to initiate the application process for a “red flag” protective order.

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“As effective as our law has been, it’s not as robust as we’ve seen in practices of other states. Frankly, 13 states have gone a lot further than we have,” said Stafstrom, a Democrat from Bridgeport.

Proponents say the change would enable the people who know and understand a loved one best to handle the matter in a more personal manner.

“Family members are often the first to realize when someone is in crisis or when a loved one needs help, so it’s important they have the tools to do this,” Stacey Mayer, of Moms Demand Action, said at a press conference Wednesday.

The proposal, according to Stafstrom, would give family members a more compassionate recourse for seeking help than being forced to notify law enforcement, which he said is a discouraging factor.

“If you’re concerned about a family member, tell someone,” Stafstrom said. “To call the cops as a first priority might not be the way I want to go in a particular situation. Right now our law doesn’t allow that.”

The proposed bill would also permit certain medical professionals, such as physicians, advanced practice nurses, and psychologists, to initiate risk protection orders, similar to laws in three other states.

“Many of these professionals work very closely with their patients and are trained in identifying potential warning signs of suicide or other threatening behaviors,” Stafstrom added.

Some legislators, such as Sen. Rob Sampson, R-Wolcott, were concerned about the new law possibly infringing on people’s due process rights.

“There’s no protections for innocent people if anyone can make an accusation and someone can be punished for it,” Sampson told reporters. “At least the police needed to rise to a level of probable cause before acting.”

Stafstrom said that family members or medical professionals initiating the application process “would have to sign the affidavit under oath, so doing so under false pretenses or with fake information would be considered perjury.” Stafstrom also said that the right to an appeals process is included in order to respect an individual’s Second Amendment rights.

“It’s still innocent until proven guilty in this country,” Sampson added.

Holly Sullivan, president of the Connecticut Citizens Defense League, said she had concerns about the legislation.

“This bill contains no stipulated penalties for false reporting. Since the temporary restraining orders were passed several years ago, 40% of these complaints have been dismissed by numerous courtroom judges,” Sullivan said. “However, not a single perjury charge was filed against anyone.”

While the state already has authorization to seize firearms from individuals deemed to be a risk to either themselves or others, HB 5448 would go a step further in allowing the creation of a list of prohibited firearms purchasers.

“What our law doesn’t provide for is to prevent someone from going out and purchasing a firearm or otherwise acquiring it,” Stafstrom said.

Stafstrom clarified that this prohibitive measure is not a criminal offense nor a mental health diagnosis, and does not make anyone targeted by a warrant a bad person.

“It is simply a finding of the judge that right now something is going on in your life that you pose enough of a risk to yourself or others that mixing that combination with firearms is just not a good idea,” Stafstrom said.

In addition to expanding who can initiate an application for a risk warrant, the bill would also amend the requirements for those already allowed to do so. The current requirement is for signatures from two police officers, or an assistant state’s attorney, to apply to a judge for a risk warrant. Stafstrom stated the bill would reduce the requirement to a signature from one officer, or an assistant state’s attorney.

Stafstrom said that in many cases where requests are made but warrants not issued, it’s because the second officer’s signature is too difficult to obtain.

“In Connecticut, we have a lot of small towns and small police departments where it’s sometimes hard to find another police officer to sign the warrant,” Stafstrom said.

Drawing from Indiana’s “red flag” legislation, HB 5448 seeks to extend Connecticut’s risk warrant statute of limitations from one year to an indefinite period. Currently, any forfeited firearms are expected to be released back to their owner after one year.

“Right now when a risk warrant is issued it’s good for one year, and there’s no provision in the statute to extend that warrant for longer than a year,” Stafstrom said.

However, Stafstrom emphasized that this provision also allows affected individuals to appeal their firearms ban or forfeiture sooner than a year.

“Vice versa for respondents who can show, after a shorter amount of time than a year, that they no longer pose a [risk of] harm to themselves or others,” Stafstrom said.

If their first appeal is unsuccessful, respondents would then have the opportunity to apply to the court every 180 days to get their weapons back, Stafstrom said, adding that this is in addition to the 14-day approval process already in place for appealing any arms forfeiture.

Proponents of the proposal said that just introducing the new legislation is also a way to help spread the word that risk warrants are an option for consideration in a crisis where firearms are present in a home.

“Help us get the news out that risk warrants are available in Connecticut,” Stafstrom said. “It’s important that folks know that there is help out there for you or a loved one.”

A 2017 study from Duke University says the law is also saving lives by preventing suicides.

“Connecticut’s preventative law is credited with having saved anywhere between 38-76 suicides between 1999 and 2013,” Stafstrom said. “For every 10-20 risk warrants issued one life is saved.”