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Newington slayings spur gun law debate

from The Connecticut Post

March 29, 1998

By ED STEADHAM

Staff writer

Matthew Beck had a gun permit and a history of psychiatric
problems.

Yet until he fired the first shot in a murderous rampage that left
four dead at lottery headquarters, Beck was within his rights to carry his
pistol.

In the wake of the March 6 massacre at lottery headquarters in
Newington, which Beck ended by turning his gun on himself, the General
Assembly is searching for ways to help police keep guns out of the hands of
the mentally unstable or anyone else who may be a threat to injure someone.

Two issues are at stake; how to intervene effectively without
impinging on the rights of law-abiding gun owners; and how to avoid breaching
medical confidentiality.

Attorney Ralph D. Sherman believes the legislature will likely
fail on both counts.

"There's a good argument to be made that you're opening a door
that's always protected confidential records," Sherman said. "My question always
is, who stands guard to the guardians themselves?"

Sue McCalley believes the legislature can come up with proper
safeguards to protect patients' privacy.

"We have to have a certain amount of faith in our mental health
professionals to know where the boundaries are," said McCalley, head of the
Connecticut Collaborative For Education Against Gun Violence in Fairfield.

Writing laws that are feasible, effective and fair is easier said
than done, according to those pushing for a change in the statutes.

"We want to be fair to gun owners," said Sen. Majority Leader
George Jepsen, D-Stamford. "They have privacy interests that we have to respect.
But we also want to be fair to public safety. If someone does pose a threat to
himself or others, there is a need to intervene."

Under current state law, local and state police are given little
direction or explicit authority when it comes to granting or revoking pistol
carrying permits.

There are only five reasons clearly spelled out for denying a
permit: failure to pass a gun safety course; certain felony or misdemeanor
convictions, such as assault; a not guilty verdict in a court trial within the past 20
years by reason of insanity;■confinement in a mental hospital within past 12
months by court order; a court restraining order for an incident involving force
or the threat of force. Last year 29 applications for state permits were denied,
while 4,536 were approved.

Last week, the Legislature's Judiciary Committee approved a
measure 40 to 0 that will require probate courts to notify State Police whenever
an involuntary commitment is made. The bill must pass through several more
committees before a final vote.

Police have been denied information about involuntary commitment.
It has been left up to the pistol permit applicant to make it known.

"Obviously, that's a benefit for everyone," said state police Sgt.
Christopher Arciero, an attorney who represents the state at pistol permit
revocation hearings.

Other sections of the state's gun permit law are vague. State and
local police must determine "that such person is a suitable person to receive
such permit."

In some instances, a heavy drinking habit or numerous moving
violations could be enough to disqualify an applicant. But the police may decide
that a decade-old third-degree assault conviction on an otherwise clean
record can be overlooked.

Last year, 559 permits were revoked. But even when police revoke a
permit, it's rare that they confiscate the gun. Most often, the pistol
owner is only forbidden from legally "carrying" the pistol away from his home or
business.

Given all this, it's no wonder the police's hands were tied when
it came to Beck's case.

Beck had been in the hospital twice the previous year for
psychiatric problems. But because he had not been committed by a probate judge, his
status as a gun permit owner would have been unaffected by such a law.

Gun control advocates realize that the Judiciary Committee bill
addresses only a small percentage of potentially deranged people. They intend to
strengthen the bill as it moves through other committees.

Under the bill, the names of the 140,000 people with gun permits
in the state would be public information under state Freedom of Information
laws.

On top of that provision, Rep. Michael Lawlor, D-East Haven,
co-chairman of the Judiciary Committee, is proposing that anyone be allowed to
file an affidavit with police if they fear that someone who has a gun is a
threat to them or to anyone else.

The police would then take the affidavit to a judge who would
decide whether to issue a search-and-seizure warrant for the gun, Lawlor said. If
guns were confiscated, the owner would be given an automatic hearing to get
them back.

Beck's family in Ledyard knew he was troubled before he went on
the rampage, Lawlor said.

"The lesson we learned in the Matthew Beck situation is we had a
lot of people who saw this coming, but they had no recourse to do anything,"
Lawlor said. "Here's a guy, all the signals are there, and what do you do?"

Sherman, a certified gun instructor from West Hartford who
specializes in gun permit cases, believes the Legislature is wasting its efforts.

"It's a feel-good thing that's going to give people a false sense
of security," said Sherman, who is chairman of the Firearms Law Committee of the
state Bar Association.

The vast majority of people committed by probate judges are
extremely disturbed and make up a small percentage of those with mental
problems, he said.

"I'm wondering where we're going with all this," Sherman said. "I
don't see any solutions to [such things as] the lottery murders other than
better security."

Sherman believes that the measures favored by Lawlor will set
neighbor against neighbor. Innocent gun owners will have to hire attorneys
to protect their rights against false claims.

"In communist Russia, they called this denunciation, and that's
what Mr. Lawlor is talking about," Sherman said. "You want to denounce your
neighbor, you just fill out a form."

Pre-emptive gun seizures amount to prior restraint on the
Constitution's Second Amendment rights to keep and bear arms, Sherman said.
Nothing gives police the right to search a home without evidence of criminal
activity.

"I thought that's what we have a Bill of Rights for," he said.

Lawlor said forcing people to sign affidavits will limit false
claims. "Sen. Jepsen and I are sensitive to this," Lawlor said.

Lawlor said he'd have a hard time explaining to the families of
the lottery shooting victims that nothing can be done to prevent another such
incident.

"Everyone saw this coming but no one seemed like they had a way of
preventing it from happening," Lawlor said.

No matter which direction the legislature takes, it will be up to
local police chiefs and state police to carry out the law. It's a difficult
job.

"You're trying to find the balance between privacy, and the
public's right to protection and the right of someone to have something," said
Clinton Police Chief Joseph P. Faughnan, president of the state Police Chief's
Association.

Local and state police run background checks on pistol permit
applicants. They take fingerprints, check arrest records and sometimes interview
friends and neighbors to see if the applicant is "suitable."

Local permits allow pistol holders to carry their weapons within
that community; state permits let them take the weapons anywhere in
Connecticut.

If an applicant tries to hide a criminal record, police can easily
run a computer check, Faughnan said. If he tries to hide a mental problem, it may
slip by.

"We have no data bank," for mental illness, Faughnan said. "The
utopian thing would be if we had a data-base on people who are hospitalized, or
people who would be considered a danger to themselves or others."

For 95 percent of all the applicants, the question of mental
stability is not an issue, Faughnan said.

Police have no desire to pry into medical records or set anyone up
for ridicule, he said. They simply want a gatekeeper who can answer "yes" or
"no" if an applicant is mentally fit to have a pistol permit, Faughnan said.

"Then again, it might not have prevented this one," Faughnan said,
referring to the Beck case.

Robert Taylor, a spokesman for the state Department of Mental
Health and Addiction Services, said department officials are working with the
legislature and police to develop a policy regarding the mentally ill and
access to gun permits.

"It's obviously a concern that the issue of confidentiality is
dealt with in the legislation," Taylor said.

Sherman said he's already heard from clients who said they will be
less inclined to seek help for mental problems for fear they will jeopardize
their gun permits.

Jepsen worries about that. The last thing the Legislature should do is pass a
law that discourages gun owners who need psychiatric help from
getting it, Jepsen said. "That's self-defeating," Jepsen said. "A lot of
people can be mentally ill but not be a danger."



Editorial

[This is the editorial that ran the same day as the above article.]

from The Connecticut Post

How to deny guns to the violently ill?

3/29/98

The March 6 Connecticut Lottery massacre, in which a mentally unstable man
fatally shot four persons and himself, has spurred an outcry to deny the
violently ill access to guns. Most people would agree in principle — but they
would be stymied as to how to translate that demand into an effective and
constitutional law.

State legislators have been grappling with that problem since Matthew Beck, a
former lottery employee and gun fancier, opened fire on several co-workers
over a job issue.

What makes lawmakers' task difficult in this case is that they must delicately
balance a gun applicant's right to medical confidentiality, the public's right to
be protected, and law-abiding gun owners' rights to own and carry weapons.
That's an almost impossible juggling act.

In our opinion, the right of the public to be protected must come first, but that
doesn't mean we should ride roughshod over other civil liberties.

One bill that doesn't impinge on citizens' rights is the measure passed last
week by the Judiciary Committee that would require probate courts to notify
state police whenever a person has been involuntarily committed. If that
person were applying for a gun permit, state police could then consider denying
it.

The problem with that bill is that it would have very limited effectiveness. It's
little more than "feel good" legislation. Only a small percentage of mentally ill
people become violent, and a smaller percentage still are involuntarily
committed by a probate judge. Although Matthew Beck had twice been
hospitalized, he was never involuntarily committed by court order.

Another proposal has been offered, this one by state Rep. Michael Lawlor,
co-chairman of the Judiciary Committee. He suggests that relatives, friends
and co-workers of a gun applicant or owner be allowed to swear out an
affidavit, stating that the person might be a danger to himself or others. State
police could then presumably deny an application. In the case of a person who
already owns guns, police could turn the affidavit over to a judge, who would
decide whether to issue a search-and-seizure warrant for the weapons.

That approach leaves far too much room for false or mistaken allegations. It's
conceivable that this process could itself become a weapon in the hands of a
malicious complainant. Moreover, accusations of mental instability might need
to be formally disputed, necessitating the costly services of a lawyer. This
process virtually invites civil suits and countersuits, deluging the already
overcrowded courts.

Perhaps the best idea came from Clinton Police Chief Joseph P. Faughnan,
president of the state police chiefs' association. Faughnan correctly notes that
police have no need or desire to know a person's mental history when
screening gun applicants.

All police want is a central gatekeeper, most likely a psychiatrist, who could
confidentially review an applicant's health-care history and simply answer "yes"
or "no" to the question of whether he or she could be safely permitted to carry
a gun. We might add that the psychiatrist would need to have official immunity
from lawsuits.

Faughnan's suggestion, while sketchy, seems to take the most promising and
least offensive approach to this problem.

State legislators, state police and the Connecticut Department of Mental
Health and Addiction Services have wisely pledged to work together toward a
policy governing guns and the violently ill, and we urge them to seek practical
ways to implement Faughnan's recommendation.

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