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Knocking Guns From Hands of Potential Killers

TIMES STAFF WRITER

A loner with a short fuse, a history of mental problems, a personal arsenal and a penchant for hurting animals: Matthew Beck might have been stamped out of a mold.

So many qualities displayed by the 35-year-old accountant who killed four fellow employees at the Connecticut State Lottery in Newington in 1998 before putting his gun to his own head are shared by a roster of recent rampage killers. So often--from California to a church in Fort Worth--friends and neighbors say later that all the warning signs were there.

Starting Friday, law enforcement officers in Connecticut were authorized to confiscate guns from anyone found by a judge to be an immediate danger to himself or others. The state’s “act concerning firearm safety” is the country’s first to give police such sweeping powers to enter a home and seize guns. Widely expected to serve as a model, the Connecticut measure reflects the struggle of region after region to deal with mass killings.

“There’s something going on out there. There’s a lot more guns and a lot more anger,” said Democratic state Rep. Michael Lawlor, who drafted the Connecticut law as a response to the lottery shootings. “This bill allows police to be proactive, not just reactive.”

Lawlor’s bill won easy bipartisan support in the Legislature, and in an interview here, Gov. John Rowland, a moderate Republican, praised the law as creative and thoughtful--"not a bit knee-jerk.”

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But critics, from both the right and the left, wasted no time portraying the new gun seizure law as unconstitutional and an infringement on individual liberties.

Local gun organizations and legislative opponents dubbed it the “turn-in-your-neighbor” law. Democratic state Rep. Richard D. Tulisano argued that the bill embodied “the beginning of our rationing of liberty.”

Steven Duke, professor at Yale Law School, branded the law “a pretextual weapon for police to go into private homes” and search for guns. “I don’t see that it will do any substantial good in terms of preventing sickos from shooting people,” added Duke, a specialist in criminal law.

At the Gun Owners of America in Springfield, Va., Dennis Fusaro said his organization opposes the bill, in part because it represents “a continuing attack on the 4th Amendment,” which prohibits unreasonable search and seizure.

But Joe Sudbay of Handgun Control Inc., the Washington-based group founded by Sarah Brady after her husband, James, President Reagan’s press secretary, was shot in 1981 near Reagan, said his office has received calls from legislators around the country who hope to replicate the Connecticut law.

Illinois state Rep. Tom Dart said he would introduce such a proposal next month.

In California, state Sen. Don Perata (D-Alameda) noted that only this week, Gov. Gray Davis signed a bill requiring police to remove for up to 48 hours guns found after domestic violence complaints.

In that measure, sponsored by Sen. Hilda Solis (D-La Puente), “there is a direct nexus between a crime and possession of a gun,” Perata said. By contrast, “I think the Connecticut law simply adds fuel to the fire of gun control critics who say that every time we enact a law, someone’s going to take away their guns. This law is going to be the realization of their nightmares.”

Yet Solis noted that this week in her district, a man who had threatened violence wounded a woman and a child before fatally shooting himself. Her own bill allows gun seizures only in reaction to complaints. Legislation like Connecticut’s “is very much needed,” Solis said, “and I don’t see why it wouldn’t work in California.”

Even its supporters acknowledge that implementation of the Connecticut law is cumbersome. To initiate a gun seizure, police must pursue reports that the gun owner “poses a risk of imminent personal injury to himself or herself or to other individuals.” Police are required to examine other means of defusing the threat, such as committing the gun owner to a mental health facility.

A police investigation must conclude that confiscating the weapon is the only way to prevent the owner from doing harm. A warrant must be issued by a judge. A hearing must be held within 14 days to determine if the gun should be returned.

“It’s not going to happen like some people have been portraying it, like--'gee, I don’t like my neighbor, let’s tell the cops he has a gun,’ ” State Police Lt. Robert Kiehm said. “It’s going to be a difficult search warrant to obtain.”

As a hypothetical example, Kiehm said, such a law might have thwarted the shooting storm by Benjamin Nathaniel Smith, accused of killing two people and wounding nine others earlier this year in Illinois and Indiana.

But Joseph Grabarz, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union in Connecticut, said the law is an invitation to police abuse. “This proposal throws due process out the window, it throws the sanctity of one’s home out the window and it gives the police authority to act as psychologists on your doorstep,” Grabarz said.

Lawlor, the bill’s author, said he could understand the concerns of critics who see the bill as “a slippery slope” toward erosion of certain rights. But, he insisted, “we’re not repealing the Constitution.” Besides, he continued, “in most states it’s a lot easier for the state to come in and seize your kids in your house than it is in Connecticut for police to seize your guns.”

Still, Fusaro, for one, said he doubted that the law could prevent fatal shooting sprees.

“I don’t believe that these guys committing these actions are as irrational as we would like to believe,” Fusaro said.

Rowland rejoined: “Tell me what your solution is.” As the father of five, the governor said, “If we get a gun away from one crazy person, then we have won.”


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