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Proposed expansion of gun seizure law sparks debate

HARTFORD, Conn. (AP) — A proposal to expand Connecticut’s gun seizure law to allow relatives and medical professionals to ask judges to order people’s guns to be taken away from them drew spirited testimony by supporters and opponents before a legislative committee Friday.

Connecticut’s 1999 “red flag” law was the first in the country to allow judges to order someone’s guns seized upon evidence and probable cause they are a danger to themselves or others. It allows only prosecutors and police to ask a judge to issue a “risk warrant” to temporarily seize a person’s guns, after an investigation and if they believe there is probable cause.

The bill would add relatives, household members, intimate partners and medical professionals, such as physicians and psychiatrists, to the list of people who would be allowed to request a risk warrant from a judge. It also would eliminate the one-year limit on gun seizure orders, instead allowing them to remain in effect until the person whose guns were seized can prove they are no longer a danger to themselves or others.

During a Judiciary Committee hearing held by video conference, supporters of the bill said it would save more lives and avoid cases where families seek law enforcement help but police do not act. Opponents said it would open the door for gun seizures to be ordered based on the word of people with an ax to grind, including spurned lovers, and without the law enforcement investigation required under the current law.

Several people who testified told stories of loved ones dying from gun violence.

Jennifer Lawlor, of Bethel, said her 25-year-old daughter, Emily Todd, was shot to death in 2018 by a man she had known for only 18 days, after having told a Bridgeport police dispatcher during a 911 call a week earlier that he was threatening to kill himself and she believed he had a gun.

Todd, who was found shot to death in Bridgeport, also told authorities she feared Brandon Roberts would kill her for talking to the police, Lawlor said. She blamed police for not doing enough to find Roberts and seize his guns before her daughter was killed.

“We simply can no longer have a system that’s dependent solely on the response of a 911 dispatcher and a police department as the only resource someone has when they’re in a crisis,” Lawlor said. “Family members are often the first to recognize when their loved one is in crisis, so it is crucial they have a way to directly petition the court to temporarily remove guns from those who could be a risk to themselves or others.”

A message seeking comment was left for a spokesperson for Bridgeport Mayor Joe Ganim on Friday. Roberts has pleaded not guilty to murder and other charges that remain pending.

Connecticut’s red flag law has been used more than 2,000 times in the state and was the foundation for similar laws in 19 other states and Washington, said Jeremy Stein, executive director of the Connecticut Against Gun Violence advocacy group. He favors expanding it.

“It has been widely studied and recognized as an effective means to prevent suicide by gun and is responsible for saving countless lives,” Stein said.

Gun rights supporters said they oppose the bill and the existing law works as is.

Holly Sullivan, president of the Connecticut Citizens Defense League, said she’s worried women who own guns would not seek mental health services in fear of having that treatment used in requests to have their guns seized.

Dr. Walter Kupson, of Middlebury, said he was concerned about the number of people who would be able to request a gun seizure under the new bill, and the potential for lies and abuses of the system.

“My fear is all it would take would be one word from a spurned partner to the judge whose going on one side without any evidence,” he said.

Other opponents questioned whether the changes to the law would deprive people of their constitutional rights by allowing gun seizures without an investigation or probable cause finding by law enforcement, as are required under the current law.

The expanded law would continue to require a judge to find probable cause before issuing a gun seizure warrant. Someone whose guns are seized also is entitled to a court hearing within 14 days to see if the seizure order should continue. If the order is continued, the person could petition the court in 180 days to cancel the seizure order, and would have to prove they are not a danger to themselves or others.

It’s not clear when the Judiciary Committee will vote on the bill.