Safekeeping of weapons a much-debated police tactic

Officers trained to defuse dangerous situations

More than 200 million 911 calls are made in the U.S. each year, initiating a response from emergency personnel.

Every day police respond to these calls, entering potentially dangerous and deadly situations.

“They are entering situations where they have a victim or potential victim,” Laura Cutiletta, senior staff attorney for the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, said. “They have an opportunity to save a life.”

One tool law enforcement use is the voluntary surrender of firearms for safekeeping; a practice meant to take the lethality out of a combustible situation, typically used when police respond to domestic violence cases.

According to the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, in about one third of states in the U.S. law enforcement officers are required or authorized to remove firearms when they arrive at the scene of a domestic violence incident. Depending on the law, removal is either required or simply authorized. The laws vary on which firearms can be removed and the length of time between removal and return of the weapons.

"This is not about infringing on anyone's second amendment rights,” Baltimore Police Sgt. Jarron Jackson said. “It is not about taking a gun away from a person.  It is about making sure our citizens are safe and removing a potential threat that could cause someone to be a victim.”

When law enforcement officers arrive at a home, after or before a crime, they have a right to ask if there is anything that is bothering or concerning, John Firman, Director of Research for The International Association of Chiefs of Police, said.

“If the victim says there is a weapon and please take it, then they certainly are free to do so because, they have been asked to take that weapon for safekeeping by that citizen. It's a very appropriate action and one a lot of police agencies take.”

Safekeeping is a tactic some police departments employ around the country, it can occur during routine calls for service, domestic violence situations and wellness checks. It is a question police are now trained to ask when investigating a call where a gun could escalate the violence.

The process is almost always voluntary except in the emergency petition of a person in mental distress.

“This training is not just for domestic violence, it is in all the calls for service we are handling,” Jackson said. “We are thinking beyond the initial call. We are thinking what is going to happen tomorrow.  What is going to happen the next day?"

Cutiletta and the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence agree. “If the state allows them to confiscate the weapon, they could save someone’s life,” she said. “It would be good if they did as peacekeepers.” The nonprofit provides legal expertise in support of gun violence prevention and the promotion of smart gun laws that save lives, according to its website. It is based in San Francisco.

Second Amendment
“If someone consents to a turnover of any sort of property, for safekeeping, that is one thing,” Sean Caranna, Executive Director for Florida Carry, Inc., said. “But, to do so without a court order, we have some pretty big due process issues with that.”

Florida Carry is a nonprofit Second Amendment advocacy organization. The group has sued police agencies around the state of Florida for pre-emptively seizing firearms.

“There is not a Second Amendment right exemption to the Fourth Amendment,” Caranna said. “You do not have a constitutional right to own a television, yet no one will take it from you without the proper consent because it is your property. Yet, you do have one (a constitutional right) to own a gun and due process is not taken into count.”

For Caranna it is a slippery slope. He said, guns should not be taken unless a judge orders it to happen. “The Fourth Amendment guarantees that with any property,” he said.

Cutiletta said the Supreme Court has already ruled on the issue.

“The Second Amendment right is not absolute,” she said. “Just because you have the right to own a gun in your home it is not absolute. Domestic violence falls into that. Why would a user's right to own a gun be more concerned with than a victim's right to not be murdered?”

In District of Columbia v. Heller, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld an individual’s right to bear arms, striking down the D.C. ban on handgun possession in the home. In the decision, the court also said the ruling should not forget about longstanding prohibitions on possession of firearms, including by felons or the mentally ill.

The Supreme Court held the Heller decision and applied it to state and local governments in McDonalds v. Chicago.

Click on the interactive below to see what gun ownership restrictions exist in each state.

 

While Caranna recognizes specific prohibitions of gun ownership, like those applied federally to people convicted of domestic violence crimes, he is not sure how voluntary an individual’s consent is when agreeing to a voluntary safekeeping of weapons.

“Police take a lot of considered voluntary and make you feel like don't have an option,” Caranna said. “They are very good at that. It travels a very perilous path in how that is implemented.”

Seeing increases
In Baltimore, weapon safekeeping is happening at a nearly 400 percent increase, the Baltimore Police Department’s numbers show.

Police say it’s due to a commitment to try to continually de-escalate potentially deadly situations.

"It was a time when we began to start shifting our thinking to say, not only are we going to handle the call, but what is the next step?” Jackson said. “We began asking the question, are there any guns in the house? Is there anything in the house or any other circumstances that can cause you to become an additional victim?"   

An analysis by Scripps reporters found guns seized for safekeeping by Baltimore police went from 58 in 2008 up to an average of 200 a year over the last three years.

That’s a total of nearly 1,000 guns in the last six years.

In Baltimore, the surrendered firearm is taken out of the home and placed in evidence control where detectives begin to investigate. Ballistics reports are performed while a background check is completed on the owner. 

If everything checks out, the gun is cleared to be returned to the owner.

According to Baltimore police, half of the guns held for safekeeping are returned to owners, while the other half remain in police custody.

Guns belonging to owners who end up being disqualified because of certain criminal convictions are not returned under Maryland law.

Baltimore police say almost 50 percent of safekeeping firearms tested by the Evidence Control Unit are proven stolen, used in a previous crime or in the case of mental health wellness check, the person was never cleared by a physician.

Wellness checks
Wellness checks are usually driven by neighbors, family members or social service agencies, Dr. Steve Albrecht, a 15-year veteran of the San Diego Police Department and a threat assessment consultant, said.

“Or in the Santa Barbara shooting case, to verify the stability of a person thought to be a danger to himself or herself, a danger to others, or gravely disabled.”

Santa Barbara Sheriff's deputies conducted a wellness check on Elliot Rodger less than a month before his May shooting spree which left six UC Santa Barbara students dead and 13 other people injured.

“Mentally ill people will not want them to know their real plans, like in the Santa Barbara case,” Albrecht said. “We want the officers to use their experience and intuition, and follow the law and their policies when they respond.”

In a 137-page document, Rodger wrote of the wellness check visit from deputies, referencing the three semi-automatic weapons he had hidden in his bedroom.

"I tactfully told them that it was all a misunderstanding, and they finally left. If they had demanded to search my room...that would have ended everything," he wrote. "For a few horrible seconds I thought it was all over. When they left, the biggest wave of relief swept over me."

Some law enforcement and mental health experts question why the subject of Rodger’s gun ownership never came up.

“We had no information that he had weapons or reason to believe he had weapons,” Kelly Hoover, spokeswoman for the Santa Barbara Sheriff’s Department, told The Los Angeles Times.

No one knows whether the information would have changed the outcome, but the incident is an example of how wellness checks require good questioning skills and discretion on the part of officers.

Concern grows in Florida
“There’s been a lot of cultural shift on public protection and what we do with people accused of crime over the past 30 years,” Caranna said. “What we are seeing is a little bit more aggressive action from police and unfortunately this is with police that are less trained to deal with the legally armed public.”

Florida Carry has represented many individuals who have seen their guns seized from police.

One case, in Daytona Beach, Florida, involved a wellness check on a 27-year-old male in December 2012.  Police responded after receiving reports that the man may harm himself. During the visit, the officers took him for a mental health or Baker Act evaluation, and seized his firearms from the home.

The next day, the man was found not to be a harm to himself and could return home, according to Caranna. When the man tried to get his weapons back, the police required him to get a court order. The man refused and through Florida Carry filed a lawsuit. Eight months later a judge ordered the department to release the weapons.

Firman, with IACP, said he does not know and cannot accurately provide details on how police agency policies differ on the issue of safekeeping of weapons, because it is not something that is nationally tracked.  But it is a fairly common practice, he said. 

Caranna said he has seen quite a bit more of it over the past few years. “It has been a fairly disturbing trend,” he said.

IACP is the largest nonprofit membership organization of police executives, with over 16,000 members in 94 different countries, according to its website.

“We know that probably all of our members in every state and county in the country are looking at gun violence issues, the use of weapons, how they’re used, who gets hurt,” Firman said. “Anything, gun safekeeping being one example, that can reduce the availability of a weapon being used in a crime is important to us.”

Something else Firman points out is that police aren't seizing a gun, they're simply taking it for safekeeping, he said. The person who owns the gun can come back and get it.

For Caranna it all comes down to the fundamental rights we have in this country. “It’s a violation of what makes America what it is,” he said. “Our core values, the Bill of Rights. Without our Bill of Rights, America is no longer a special place.”

Florida Carry has been involved in litigation relating to preemption and constitutional challenges related to the gun laws in Florida. Some include college's policies regulating firearm possession in private vehicles, county's ordinances regulating firearm sales, possession and use and city ordinances regulating firearm possession and use in public.

Domestic violence
In Baltimore, the lion’s share of safekeeping guns are voluntarily seized in domestic violence disputes.  Police said the sharp rise in seizures comes from how officers approach victims.

“Studies show women are much more likely to be killed by a domestic abuser if there is a firearm in the home or if the abuser owns a firearm,” Cutiletta said. “So, the police responding on the scene are dealing with a more lethal environment if there is a gun or weapon involved.”

“They are assuming, the gun is going to automatically jump off the shelf and murder someone,” Caranna said. “If someone is so dangerous they are going to murder someone and they are not in jail and are conditioned out on bail then a judge can say they are not allowed to own a gun. But, it takes a judge. I am not asking for much here, just constitutional due process.”

Multiple calls to the National Rifle Association were not returned.
 

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