Gov. Ned Lamont and Mike Lawlor outside the Windsor Police Department Credit: Hugh McQuaid / CTNewsJunkie

WINDSOR, CT — State officials sought Tuesday to raise awareness of a landmark Connecticut law enabling courts to seize firearms from residents believed to be violent or suicidal as Congress considers bolstering similar policies nationwide.

Connecticut was the first state to adopt a so-called red flag law in 1999 and the state legislature voted last year to expand the policy to allow family members and medical providers to initiate an investigation into a person they are worried may be a danger to themselves or others. 

At a press conference outside the Windsor Police Department, Gov. Ned Lamont said he expected the expansion of the law, which took effect earlier this month, would reduce gun violence and firearm related suicides.

“It’s going to save a lot of lives,” Lamont said. “It makes a difference. I think we’re doing it carefully with family members and medical professionals.”

Since its inception, state courts have issued around 2,600 risk warrants, according to figures from the Judicial Branch. The number of warrants sought has varied by year from a low of 13 in its first year to a high of 269 in 2018. 

More than a dozen states have followed Connecticut and enacted similar policies in the past two decades. They could soon see a boost in federal funding as Congress mulls a bipartisan agreement on gun policies, which among other things would provide additional resources to help police implement the risk warrants. 

Michael Lawlor, a former lawmaker who helped draft the policy following the murder of four people at the Connecticut Lottery offices in 1998, said the law has saved lives since it was implemented here.

“If you look at the actual data, there are clear instances where a tragedy was imminent and police were able because of this mechanism to intervene, separate someone from their firearms, and refer them for mental health evaluation,” said Lawlor, who now works as an associate professor of criminal justice at New Haven University.

However, the newly-expanded policy is not yet well known among all Connecticut police departments, according to Jeremy Stein, executive director of Connecticut Against Gun Violence. 

Stein said he recently spoke with a social worker whose client reported wanting to commit suicide and planned to acquire a gun. When the social worker called the local police department they were initially told there was little police could do.

Jeremy Stein, executive director of Connecticut Against Gun Violence Credit: Hugh McQuaid / CTNewsJunkie

“Luckily, and thanks to our legislators and thanks to our governor, we expanded our Red Flag law this year and so this social worker was able to … go directly to the court and to have the court issue a protective order, which once again saved lives,” Stein said. “We know this works.”

The policy also became the subject of election year politics Tuesday as Lamont’s reelection campaign issued a statement highlighting a vote cast in opposition of Connecticut’s expanded law by Rep. Laura Devlin, a Fairfield Republican who is running for lieutenant governor alongside Bob Stefanowski, Lamont’s Republican rival. 

The legislature passed the updated law last year generally along party lines. In the House, Devlin joined all but two Republicans and four moderate Democrats in opposition. 

“Red flag laws are proven to save lives and prevent tragedies,” Jake Lewis, Lamont campaign spokesman, said. “The safety of Connecticut communities are only as strong as our policies and Rep. Laura Devlin opposed strengthening seizure laws that prevent dangerous individuals from purchasing new firearms.”

In a statement, Devlin said she supported the original red flag policy, which was adopted before she was elected to the legislature, and believed the changes passed last year would weaken the law. 

Reached by phone, Devlin clarified her position, saying residents worried about someone posing a danger to themselves or others could already contact police. The updated law added an additional avenue for family members or doctors to request a court intervention. Devlin said that the new avenue only served to complicate the process.

“The concern was that it was a confusing avenue. Do you go to the police? Do you go to the court? What if the court’s not open? I didn’t know I could go to the police. Do I wait until Monday when the court is open?” Devlin said. “It definitely convolutes the process.”