HARTFORD, CT– The House voted Wednesday to update the state’s “red flag” law, which enables courts to issue risk warrants for police to seize firearms from potentially violent or suicidal people.
On a 93 to 55 vote, lawmakers approved changes to the law, first passed after the 1998 Connecticut Lottery shooting, to reflect policies adopted in other states.
Rep. Steve Stafstrom, a Bridgeport Democrat who is co-chairman of the Judiciary Committee, pointed to a study suggesting that Connecticut’s risk warrants had prevented dozens of suicides between 1999 and 2013. He said the law had served as a model around the country but needed an update.
“We have noticed, as other states have passed red flag laws, particularly in the wake of the Parkland Shooting, that there are certain gaps or holes in that statute we passed 20 years ago,” Stafstrom said. “The bill before us seeks to close some of those holes or loopholes and to strengthen and build upon what was a national leading statute at the time.”
Major changes to the law include allowing family members and medical providers to initiate an investigation into a person they are worried may be a danger to themselves or others. Currently, two police officers or a prosecutor are required to seek a warrant to seize firearms.
“Oftentimes someone’s spouse or son or psychiatrist knows when someone is on the verge of taking their own life, for example, or maybe making threats about engaging in a mass shooting. Those folks, we want to be able to get into court quickly and start the process,” Stafstrom said.
The bill would add a provision allowing the risk warrants to prevent someone from purchasing weapons. Currently, the law only considers firearms that are already in a person’s possession.
The proposal also changes the duration of the risk warrants, making them persistent until the affected person applies to have the order vacated by a court. Under current law, the order lasts for one year with no ability to extend it or terminate it early.
After a floor debate, the bill saw both support and opposition on both sides of the aisle. Some lawmakers opposed the changes as unnecessary. Several said the current system, in which concerned residents call the police if they are worried someone may hurt themselves or others, is preferable to the alternate reporting process allowed by the bill.
“If somebody complains that they’re about to do something bad to others, I would hope that somebody would pick up the phone and call the police,” Rep. Craig Fishbein, R-Wallingford, said.
Rep. Greg Howard, a North Stonington Republican who is a police officer, said he had personally investigated many risk warrants and worried the changes would actually make Connecticut’s law less effective.
“Frankly, it convolutes and muddies-up a system that has worked, as the good chairman said, has been the gold standard. We were a leader, we continue to be a leader,” Howard said.
Rep. Anne Hughes, an Easton Democrat who is a social worker, said the change will give families of loved ones in mental health distress a sought-after option that does not involve the police.
“Oftentimes, as we have seen played out tragically across the country, calling the police can escalate an acute crisis and when we’re dealing with folks on the continuum of mental health crisis … we need that buffer of time sometimes, we need that third party,” Hughes said.
The bill will now go to the Senate for consideration.