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States Weigh Government Latitude of Seizing Guns from Perceived Dangerous Owners

Image via Shutterstock, the Mormon temple in Salt Lake City.

Democratic Massachusetts Rep. Paul Tucker is one of 30 lawmakers who has signed on to a bill that would allow police to confiscate guns at will if the gun owner is deemed to be either mentally ill or too dangerous to have a firearm.

“We’ve seen too many tragedies where we wonder if we could have done something to prevent it,” said Tucker.

The legislation would allow police, healthcare workers and family members to ask a judge to issue an “extreme protection order” allowing police to take away guns and revoke firearms licenses for up to a year if a gun owner is judged to be a danger to themselves or others.

Tucker is a former Salem, Mass., police chief. He told the Daily News of Newbury Port police shouldn’t have the power to take guns away from “law-abiding citizens without due process, but there are times when we have to exercise extraordinary power.”

From the other side of the aisle, Senate Minority Leader Bruce Tarr (R) said police already have the authority in Massachusetts to revoke or suspend firearms licenses.

“Rather than restricting the rights of law-abiding citizens, maybe we should be looking at the issue of behavioral and mental health services,” Tarr said.

Jim Wallace, executive director of the Gun Owners’ Action League, a Massachusetts affiliate of the NRA, said that the bill would only make a bad situation worse.

“If we drag someone with mental health issues through the court process, you’re going to exacerbate those problems,” Wallace said. “This is actually a dangerous bill that really won’t make people safe.”

Illinois Democratic State Rep. Kathleen Willis introduced legislation that’s a carbon copy of the bill Tucker is backing in Massachusetts. HB 2354 has been approved by the Illinois House Judiciary Criminal Committee.

“This bill could be a problem – with profiling, with a family member getting even – because there are no facts required to submit a complaint,” said Richard Pearson, executive director of the Illinois State Rifle Association. “Once it’s filed, it’s also almost impossible to get it off your record.”

Colleen Daley, executive director of the Illinois Council Against Handgun Violence, told WTTW the argument that the bill would violate anyone’s Second Amendment rights was disingenuous.

“This is a temporary, one-year restraining order that gives people their day in court,” Daley said.

A similar bill was approved by the House Judiciary Criminal Committee last year, but it was never voted on by the full Illinois House.

Daley vowed this year would be different. She said her group would lobby hard for the bill and was already counting votes.

As for Pearson and the Illinois State Rifle Association, “We’re going to fight this thing all the way, no question,” he said.

Although due process is a part of the legislation being considered in states like Massachusetts and Illinois, the Vermont Legislature is working on a proposal to allow police to take away firearms in domestic violence cases without a warrant.

That is a proposal that Rep. Patrick Brennan (R) said he couldn’t support.

“The more you dig, the more problems you find, and I’m not the first one to say that,” Brennan said during the House debate. “It’s a step in the wrong direction.”

H. 422 was approved by the Vermont House after several hours of debate in March. It is now before the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Rep. Chip Conquest (D) and other proponents of the legislation said it was only intended to protect victims of domestic violence.

But Rep. Job Tate (R) said the legislation, even if it was well-intentioned, could have the opposite effect.

“I don’t know about you, but I know that down in the Marble Valley our women know how to handle themselves, frankly, with a firearm,” Tate said. “You could make a very real argument that taking … a firearm from a home could actually make a woman or a victim less safe.”

However, Rep. Jean O’Sullivan (D) said Tate was just spinning the old myth that if women could only defend themselves better, they wouldn’t be victims.

“You’re suggesting that if I’m a strong woman in an abusive situation and I have a handgun,” O’Sullivan said, “I should go blow away the abuser in front of my children.”

This may be a relatively new debate for Massachusetts, Illinois and Vermont. But Connecticut was there and did that 17 years ago.

How’s it working for the Constitution State?

The law that allows temporary removal of firearms from people who could be a threat to themselves or others has saved lives, say researchers.

A team from Duke, Yale and the University of Connecticut released a study late last year saying as many as 78 suicides had been prevented because guns had been confiscated.

“There are a lot of risky people out there who are just not prohibited from purchasing guns,” Jeffrey Swanson, lead author of the study, told the Connecticut Criminal Justice Policy Advisory Commission. “They often have guns legally. There are many people who should be alive today except for the fact that they had a firearm at that time.”