Implementation and Effectiveness of Connecticut’s Risk-Based Gun Removal Law: Does it Prevent Suicides?
Developing practical, effective, and legally sustainable policies to separate firearms from people at risk of violence or suicide represents a potentially important, but challenging public health opportunity for gun violence prevention in the United States. In 1999, Connecticut became the first state to pass a law that allows police to preemptively remove firearms from persons deemed at risk of causing serious injury to others or self. The statute, C.G.S. § 29-38c, authorizes time-limited gun removal (for up to one year) under a civil court “risk warrant” process based on probable cause, even if the person of concern has no record of a gun-disqualifying mental health or criminal adjudication. Two other states — Indiana and California — have enacted similar risk-based gun removal laws, and other jurisdictions are considering them, but there has been little empirical study of how and whether these legal tools work. This article presents the results of a systematic research study on the characteristics, implementation, and outcomes of 762 gun removals conducted under Connecticut’s risk-warrant law during the period 1999-2013. The study found that the law was invoked to separate guns most often from men (92 percent) who were judged to be at risk of self-harm, but had no criminal record in the preceding year. By matching risk-warrant cases to official death records, the research revealed that 21 of these individuals (3 percent) eventually completed suicide, 6 with guns and 15 by other means; this equates to a suicide rate approximately 40 times higher than that of the general adult population of Connecticut. However, even more suicides would have occurred if guns had not been removed from these individuals. We applied population-level data on the specific fatality rates associated with various methods of intentional self-injury to estimate that 142 (19 percent) of the gun removal subjects had attempted suicide, of which 121 survived. We calculated the number (within a range) of additional fatalities that would have occurred if these individuals had retained their guns and attempted suicide with a firearm instead of using some less lethal method. In this manner, we estimated that approximately 10 to 20 gun seizures were carried out for every 1 suicide averted. These data can help policymakers by framing what is in the balance between risk and rights in the implementation of preemptive gun removal schemes. Ideally, such laws should be carefully tailored to target those few individuals who pose a clear and present risk of harm to themselves or others but who are not otherwise restricted from purchasing or possessing guns. The exercise of state authority to remove guns from private citizens under such risk-based regimes must be checked by appropriate due-process protections commensurate with abridging a constitutional right, including the opportunity for timely restoration of gun rights when risk recedes.