Emily Todd and Jennifer Lawlor. (Contributed photo)

Her daughter died a week after asking Bridgeport police for help with a man she had been dating for two weeks who was threatening suicide, Jennifer Lawlor said.

Police engaged him a brief chase after Emily Todd was on the phone with 911 explaining for more than an hour that he had a gun, which she had seen, and was sending her text messages threatening to kill himself because she ended their brief relationship that morning in 2018, Jennifer Lawlor told members of the Judiciary Committee Friday.

But police never went looking for him – despite Todd giving them the address where he was staying – until they found her daughter’s lifeless body near the Bridgeport waterfront about a week later, her mother said. Todd was 25-years-old when she died.

“I had to identify her by photos of her tattoos taken at a crime scene,” Jennifer Lawlor told the committee.

She doesn’t want any other mother to suffer the same fate. 

“Had this law been in effect, Emily and I would have had options,” Jennifer Lawlor said. “But we were trapped and that was our only option.”

Jennifer Lawlor was among dozens of advocates including members of Connecticut Against Gun Violence, Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America and Everytown for Gun Safety who testified Friday in support of HB 6355 which would allow family members including dating partners to seek help from the courts to remove firearms from someone who may be potentially dangerous to themselves or others.

“Our tragedy has me certain that significant changes must be made to save the next young woman who will find herself in a situation she cannot control who calls for help,” Jennifer Lawlor said. “We can no longer have a system dependent solely on the response of a 911 dispatcher and police department as the only resource for someone when in a crisis.”

a green button that says support and red button that says oppose

The current law on risk warrants only allows police or state’s attorneys to obtain an order from a judge to remove the firearms of someone who is posing a risk of harming themselves or others. It doesn’t give family members or dating partners who may have intimate knowledge of a person’s behavior any help from the courts, said Michele Voight, whose Aunt Louise took her own life with a gun in 2017.

“Unable to directly request an order from the court, family members of people in crisis are denied direct access to the risk protection process,” Voight said in her written testimony. “Those who may first recognize dangerous warning signs are deprived direct access to a lifesaving tool.”

Voight, who is a survivor leader with Moms Demand Action, called her aunt a free spirit who loved huskies and “everything purple” but battled mental illness throughout her life. “My Aunt Louise should have never had access of a firearm,” Voight said.

The proposed expansion of the law would allow family members and dating partners to seek the help of a judge to get a person’s firearms removed. It also stipulates that anyone who is the subject of a risk warrant would have a court hearing in two weeks to determine if the continued removal of the firearms is necessary. If a judge determines it is, the person could not request another hearing for 180 days. The order could be extended another 180 days at that time.

It would also bar the person from obtaining any other firearms while the order is in effect.

Opponents contend that the law denies people due process and allows vindictive ex-partners or spouses to retaliate or allow abusive men to have the courts take away a woman’s protection to keep him at bay – her firearm.

Several gun owners spoke out against the law contending that neighbors could file with the court if they didn’t like the fact that a firearm was next door. “I could be lying in bed and there could be a SWAT team at the door,” said Eugene Williams, a Bristol resident, who added that he strongly opposed the bill.  

“Right now a complaint may not be submitted unless a state’s attorney or police do an investigation to determine if probable cause exists,” Rep. Doug Dubitsky, R-Chaplin, said while questioning Jeremy Stein, the executive director of CAGV. “Now a family would be able to submit a complaint and the court would be issuing an order based on if this person has a good faith belief?”

“The point of this law is to remove the gun from this situation,” Stein said. “There would be due process. If we don’t act, lives will be lost.”

The Division of Criminal Justice recommended that the proposed law separate the warrant process from the one used by police and state’s attorneys by allowing citizens to file a civil action rather than piggybacking on what already exists, said Deputy Chief State’s Attorney Kevin Lawlor, who is no relation to Jennifer Lawlor.

The current law has been used with “great success,” Kevin Lawlor said, with over 1,800 risk warrants being served through the process of police and state’s attorneys finding probable cause and then obtaining an order to seize guns from people who were at risk of harming themselves or others.

“The Division has concerns that allowing civilians to seek risk warrants would place these citizens in a precarious position,” Kevin Lawlor said. “They may have the probable cause needed, but simply do not know how to express it to the judge.”

Legislators had no questions for Jennifer Lawlor after her testimony but credited her with bringing awareness to gun violence issues. “The power of your story helps people who don’t always see things the same way,” said Judiciary Committee Co-Chair Gary Winfield, D-New Haven. “Thank you for today and also thank you for the work you continue to do.”