Drafted to prevent mass shootings, CT’s red flag law increasingly used to stop suicides, domestic violence

Photo of John Moritz
A row of rifles for sale is on display at a gun shop in Aurora, Colo., on July 20, 2012. The mass shooting in Buffalo, N.Y., has prompted questions about the effectiveness of “red flag laws” passed in 19 states and the District of Columbia.

A row of rifles for sale is on display at a gun shop in Aurora, Colo., on July 20, 2012. The mass shooting in Buffalo, N.Y., has prompted questions about the effectiveness of “red flag laws” passed in 19 states and the District of Columbia.

Alex Brandon / Associated Press

After a car crash in February left her father face down in the snow with a six pack of beer left in his car, a New Haven woman called police concerned that her father was repeating the kinds of suicidal threats he had made in the past while dealing with alcoholism.

When officers arrived at her house, the woman showed them texts her dad had sent to his brother discussing shooting himself in the head. He had also lashed out at his daughter and her mother, blaming them for his hospitalization after the crash, police said.

“I’d rather be dead than be in the hospital,” the man told his daughter, according to a warrant.

Based on the concerns raised by the daughter and by a psychiatrist at the hospital who said that the father should not be allowed to possess firearms, the officers filed for a warrant to seize the man’s guns from the home he shared with his family. After the daughter helped them open her father’s gun safe, officers found a shotgun, Glock pistol and a Desert Eagle Magnum all registered in the father’s name, along with several magazines and ammunition boxes that police took into custody.

The seizure was emblematic of the kind of cases in which police in Connecticut have increasingly sought warrants to temporarily confiscate people’s firearms under the state’s decades-old “Red Flag” law — cases that are most commonly sparked when a comment or threat by a person showing signs of mental distress draws the alarm of a close family member, friend or romantic partner.

Since Connecticut lawmakers enacted the country’s first red flag law in 1999 after a lottery employee killed five co-workers in Newington, experts say the law has been used with increased frequency to address other, more common forms of gun violence such as suicide or domestic abuse. Police in Connecticut are on pace to file roughly 230 risk warrants by year’s end, which would make 2022 one of the most active years on record for the state’s red flag law. It’s a steep increase from the first decade after the law was implemented in which no more than 50 risk warrants were filed in a given year.

At the same time, the focus on red flags as a potential tool to stop mass shootings has resurfaced in Congress and state legislatures following a succession of deadly massacres over the last month in Texas, New York and Oklahoma. A bipartisan group of senators, including Connecticut’s Democratic Sens. Richard Blumenthal and Chris Murphy, negotiated a deal at which a national version of the red flag law is a centerpiece of. If passed, it would incentivize states beyond the 20 states that currently have similar laws to draft similar legislation. The deal also includes several other gun control and mealth health reforms/

“Originally it was designed to stop mass shootings,” Jeremy Stein, the executive director of the advocacy group Connecticut Against Gun Violence, said of Connecticut’s red flag law. “It was created because someone with a mental health problem had guns and had a history of problems and the police felt like they could not do anything to remove the guns from the situation.”

“Over time, it was also utilized to prevent harm to self,” Stein said.

A review by Hearst Connecticut Media Group of more than 50 Firearm Safety Risk Warrants filed by Connecticut police this year found that the large majority of cases involved men, many of whom had expressed suicidal thoughts or who had a past history of treatment for mental health issues. The most frequent source of the initial complaint to police was an immediate family member, followed by a girlfriend or boyfriend.

None of the cases reviewed by Hearst involved allegations of a person making specific threats to shoot strangers at a school, hospital, place of worship or another public place.

In nearly every case reviewed by Hearst, police reported seizing weapons while awaiting a judge’s permission to either keep guns in police custody or transfer them to another individual for up to a year.

The majority of those requests are either approved, or result in some other outcome other than the guns being returned to the owner. Over the past five years, judges have ordered seized firearms returned to their owners in roughly 6 to 12 percent of cases, depending on the year.

The cases included a man in Bethany who complained of hearing voices outside of his house plotting to kill him, as well as a Marine veteran in Vernon who allegedly held a knife to his throat and told police he was a “bad guy” for killing people while in the military, according to the warrant. In Killingly, police seized a shotgun from a man who allegedly assaulted his girlfriend and threatened to kill himself in front of her after accusing her of cheating on him, according to the risk warrant affidavit filed by police.

In one case that sparked media attention, a teenager in East Hampton who was accused of building an unregistered “ghost” gun capable of fully automatic firing had more than two dozen rifles, handguns and crossbows seized from the home he shared with his grandfather, along with more than a 1,000 rounds of ammunition. The teen, who was charged with multiple felonies, allegedly told police he had “made enemies” with his co-workers at a grocery store, but denied plans to carry out a “copycat” attack to last month’s mass shooting at a grocery store in Buffalo, police said. Police said they were tipped off about the teen’s activities when his grandfather came to the police station to ask about the legality of building an AR-15. The court case is ongoing and awaiting a plea.

Experts say that the tendency for risk warrants to be prompted by the concern of family members — particularly related to suicide — is not suprising, given that the large majority of gun deaths in Connecticut are the result of suicide as opposed to homicides or accidents. And while mass shootings remain relatively rare, intimate partner violence has contributed to nearly 300 deaths in Connecticut since the red flag law was passed.

Mike Lawlor, a professor of criminal justice at the University of New Haven who led the Judiciary Committee in the Connecticut House of Representatives at the time the 1999 law was passed, said that during the initial debate the legislation was criticized as “turn-in-your-neighbor law,” a description that he said has proven to be inaccurate.

“The people most likely to reach out to police are healthcare providers and family members, that’s what we’ve learned over the last two decades of who is actually reaching out and initiating these red flag warrants,” said Lawlor, who was also the criminal justic policy chief for Gov. Dannel Malloy for eight years. “Family members are the people who know these individuals the best.”

Seeking to update the state’s red flag with the knowledge gained since the late 1990s, Connecticut lawmakers last year passed legislation expanding the existing law to allow family members and health care providers to petition a judge directly to issue a warrant, instead of first raising their concerns with police.

The new law also allowed weapons seized by police to be held indefinitely with permission from the courts, while prohibiting individuals subject to a risk order to purchase new firearms.

Republicans in the legislature criticized the expansion, saying it went beyond the original scope of Connecticut’s 1999 Red Flag law and potentially made the process of obtaining a risk warrant longer and more complicated. The new provisions of the law went into effect on June 1.

“That’s the problem, the message to the public should be “If you have a good faith reason to believe a person is going to do something bad with a firearm, you call the police,” said state Rep. Craig Fishbein, R- Wallingford, who has also served as an attorney for clients subject to risk warrants.

Experts say that in Connecticut it took years for both police and the public to catch on to the notion of using risk warrants. In the first decade after the law went into effect, police filed no more than 50 warrants each year, according to data provided by the Connecticut Judicial Branch.

The number of warrants filed each year rose steadily until reaching a peak of 269 warrants filed in 2018. While the annual number of warrants filed across the state declined somewhat during the pandemic, it has remained steadily above 200 warrants each year since then.

Lawlor, the former lawmaker, said that two events prompted members of the public to take greater notice of the red flag law — the Virginia Tech campus shooting in 2007 and the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre in 2012 — while police also gradually became more comfortable seeking warrants as they came across individuals exhibiting signs of distress.

“It took a while for the police to understand how it works,” Lawlor said. “At the same time, over time, ordinary people became more willing to say something when they saw something. They were more likely to call the police when they spotted the warning signals, right, the red flags.”

Despite the overall rise in the number of warrants issued across Connecticut, their use by authorities has varied greatly across the state’s cities and judicial districts, according to the judiciary’s data.

For example, police in Wolcott — a medium-sized town of about 16,000 people in the Naugatuck Valley — have been particularly active, filing seven risk warrants in the first half of the year, according to Chief of Police Edward Stephens. By contrast, police in Stamford, the state’s second-largest city with a population of 135,000, have filed none.

Stephen said there’s been no change in police tactics to explain the town’s increase in risk warrants, which numbered five in all of 2021. And while he said the town has seen an increase in residents purchasing guns and requesting pistol permits, he declined to ascribe the rising number of risk warrants to any particular cause.

“I don’t think there’s any issue of whether [police officers] didn’t do it before because they were not comfortable versus now, that’s just not the case,” Stephens said. “However it’s like anything else, once you do it once, twice three times, you know, you’re used to doing it.”

Patrick Griffin, the new chief’s state’s attorney presiding over all of the state's judicial districts, said he had yet to review the numbers behind risk warrants since taking the job in May.

However, as the state’s attorney for the New Haven judicial district last year, Griffin oversaw the largest number of warrants filed in any district, 25, and said that tackling gun violence was a “top priority” of his administration.

“The theory behind it was to try to prevent tragedies with firearms,” Griffin said. “So in New Haven, yes, we did use them. I think the numbers bear that out.”

Griffin and other experts said it will take time to determine whether the expansion of the law that went into effect this month will have a large impact on the number of warrants filed with the courts. The sponsors of the bill, meanwhile, were more bullish in predicting a continued increase.

“We should continue to see an upward trend in the number of warrants that are applied for, which quite frankly is a good thing” said state Rep. Steve Stafstrom, D- Bridgeport, who sponsored the legislation to expand the law. “It could be preventing a mass shooting, but more likely it’s preventing someone from committing a suicide.”

If you feel you are in danger of suicide, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, anytime, at 800-273-8255 (273-TALK). Help also is available by calling 211 and you can also text CT to 741741 to connect with a trained crisis counselor. Other resources are available at https://portal.ct.gov/DMHAS , the website of the state Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services. https://www.crisistextline.org/