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Connecticut’s new 'red flag' law provisions go into effect

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As lawmakers work toward a compromise to strengthen federal gun laws, Connecticut has new “red flag” provisions on the books as of Wednesday that allow family members and clinicians to ask the court to intervene when a person poses an imminent risk of injury to himself or others.

Since 1999, Connecticut has allowed law enforcement officers to ask a judge to take away a person’s firearms if that person posed an “extreme risk.” It’s called a “red flag” law and it was innovative when it was passed. More than 20 years later — as nearly two dozen other states passed similar provisions — Connecticut’s grew outdated.

“We had fallen behind, and there were some serious gaping holes in the statute we had put on the books in 1999,” said Bridgeport state Rep. Steve Stafstrom, the chairman of the legislature’s judiciary committee.

Connecticut’s law didn’t prevent people who didn’t yet own guns from going out and getting them once they were subject to an order. Once guns were seized, there was no process to get them back, and law enforcement didn’t have a way to keep them in the event that the owner was still a threat. And, while the law allowed police to petition the court to take away someone’s guns, it didn’t allow concerned family members or clinicians to do the same.

Now that’s all changed. The new law was passed last year and took effect June 1. And Stafstrom says the research shows the law saves lives. For every 10 to 20 orders, researchers say one life has been saved.

“So if, by allowing family members to initiate the application increases the number of applications over a given year in Connecticut by 100, that’s five additional lives we've saved,” Stafstrom said. “The idea really is to make the process as easy as possible for the petitioner … [T]his law really is to prevent suicides, and I think that's where it has been shown to be most effective over the past 20 years in Connecticut.”

The law was passed after the Connecticut lottery shooting. In its first decade, law enforcement on average applied for roughly 30 risk protection orders each year. That’s according to data from the state judicial branch. In its second decade, that average annual number went up to 150. Last year, officials filed for orders 224 times. So far this year, they’ve submitted 91 warrants. A quarter of those were pending as of late May. But in over half of them, a judge has ordered that the state hold someone’s firearms for the maximum limit of one year. Only six times were guns returned.

Jeremy Stein, executive director of Connecticut Against Gun Violence, says there are good reasons to make it easier for the general public to get these emergency orders directly from the court.

“Not everybody’s comfortable going to the police,” Stein said. “Especially in certain communities where maybe they’ve had bad experiences with the police and they don’t really want to go to the police or they’re reluctant to go to the police.”

Stein also says the law considers the due process of the gun owner who wants to get weapons back.

“So there are plenty of safeguards here built in for the gun owner,” Stein said. “But we have to remember that … this is an emergency situation, this is something to protect the public.”

Stafstrom says that, while most people may still go to police to seek protection, this opens another pathway.

“During business hours you could walk into your local courthouse, they would hand you a form to fill out that is an affidavit that would say I believe [someone] is a danger to herself or others and here's why,” he said. “That is then immediately presented to a judge. If the judge agrees, then they will send a police officer out to investigate.”

The judicial branch has newly posted instructional brochures on how to get a risk protection order.