As Connecticut lawmakers discuss how already-strict state gun laws might be strengthened in response to the Newtown shootings, some lawyers are expecting a spike in firearms confiscations under an existing law.
Connecticut's gun seizure law allows police to take a licensed firearm from someone who is considered a danger to themselves or others and hold it for up to a year. The law was passed in response to the workplace shooting deaths of four people at the Connecticut State Lottery headquarters in 1998. The gunman, Matthew Beck, had a history of suicide attempts.
"This law has been used over 300 times since 1999 and there is no question that it has prevented tragedies from happening," said Mike Lawlor, undersecretary of the state Office of Policy and Management and a former legislator who worked on the gun seizure law. "I'm sure we can beef up the law even more, and I'm sure we will."
According to the state Office of Legislative Research, police in Connecticut applied for seizure warrants 277 times between 1999 and 2009 and confiscated more than 2,000 firearms. Records indicate the use of the warrants gradually increased over the years, ranging from 16 in 2003 to 42 in 2008.
But no gun confiscation records have been compiled since 2009, a situation that the state Judicial Branch is currently addressing.
Chris Duryea, a research attorney for the Judicial Branch, said his office is building a database to keep track of gun seizure cases, replacing an old paper-based system. It will take several months to complete the database, which will allow law enforcement personnellocal, state and federalto quickly access any prior gun seizure history when dealing with potentially dangerous people.
Additionally, said Duryea, this database will theoretically make it harder for people whose guns were seized in Connecticut from buying weapons in other states. (A separate database, also in the works, will track guns used in specific crimes.)
Work began on the databases last year, well before Ryan Lanza used his mother's semi-automatic rifle and handgun on Dec. 14 to kill 20 students and six educators at Sandy Hook Elementary School. No one is saying yet whether Lanza showed enough outward signs of mental instability to justify removing guns from the home where he lived with his mother. If he did, there is no record that any effort was made to have the guns seized.
While the database was in the works long before the Newtown shooting, the tragedy has "allowed some of our local parties in the court to become more supportive" of the database project, Duryea said. "It's timely," he said. "We're rolling up our sleeves to get it done."
Ruling out alternatives
Lt. Paul Vance, a Connecticut State Police spokesman, said officers take very seriously complaints about an unstable person having access to guns. In such cases, he said, the troopers will ask the person to turn over the firearms. "If you don't forfeit the firearms, we'll seize them and hold them until such time as they can be turned over to a responsible person," he said.