NEW YORK — Last April, workers at Middlesex Hospital in Connecticut called the police to report that a psychiatric patient named Mark Russo had threatened to shoot his mother if officers tried to take the 18 rifles and shotguns he kept at her house.
Russo, who was off his medication for paranoid schizophrenia, also talked about the recent elementary school massacre in Newtown, Conn., and told a nurse that he “could take a chair and kill you or bash your head in between the eyes,” court records show.
The police seized the firearms, as well as seven high-capacity magazines, but Russo, 55, was eventually allowed to return to the trailer in Middletown, Conn., where he lives alone.
As for his guns, Russo is scheduled to get them back in the spring, as mandated by Connecticut law.
The Russo case highlights a central, unresolved issue in the debate over balancing public safety and the Second Amendment right to bear arms: just how powerless law enforcement can be when it comes to keeping firearms out of the hands of people who are mentally ill.
‘There is a big gap in the law. There is no common-sense middle ground to protect the public.’Jeffrey Furbee, chief legal adviser to the Columbus Police Department in Ohio
Connecticut’s law giving the police broad leeway to seize and hold guns for up to a year is actually relatively strict. Most states simply adhere to the federal standard, banning gun possession only after someone is involuntarily committed to a psychiatric facility or designated as mentally ill or incompetent after a court proceeding or other formal legal process. Relatively few with mental health issues, even serious ones, reach this point.
As a result, the police often find themselves grappling with legal ambiguities when they encounter mentally unstable people with guns, unsure how far they can go in searching for and seizing firearms and then, in particular, how they should respond when the owners want them back.
“There is a big gap in the law,” said Jeffrey Furbee, the chief legal adviser to the Police Department in Columbus, Ohio. “There is no common-sense middle ground to protect the public.”
A vast majority of people with mental illnesses are not violent. But recent mass shootings — outside a Tucson supermarket in 2011, at a movie theater last year in Aurora, Colo., and at the Washington Navy Yard in September — have raised public awareness of the gray areas in the law. In each case, the gunman had been recognized as mentally disturbed but had never been barred from having firearms.
After the Newtown killings a year ago, state legislatures across the country debated measures that would have more strictly limited the gun rights of those with mental illness. But most of the bills failed amid resistance from both the gun lobby and mental health advocates concerned about unfairly stigmatizing people.
What remains is the uncertain legal territory at the intersection of guns and mental illness.
Examining it is difficult, because of privacy laws governing mental health and the limited availability of information on firearm ownership. But The New York Times obtained court and police records from more than 1,000 cases around the country in which guns were seized in mental-health-related episodes.
A systematic review of these cases — from cities and counties in California, Colorado, Connecticut, Florida, Indiana, Ohio, and Tennessee — underscores how easy it is for people with serious mental health problems to have guns.
Over the past year in Connecticut, where the Times obtained some of the most extensive records of seizure cases, there were more than 180 instances of gun confiscations from people who appeared to pose a risk of “imminent personal injury to self or others.” Close to 40 percent of these cases involved serious mental illness.
Perhaps most striking, in many of the cases examined across the country, the authorities said they had no choice under the law but to return the guns after an initial seizure for safekeeping.
For example, the sheriff in Arapahoe County, Colo., had to return a .45-caliber pistol last year that officers had seized four months earlier after receiving a call that Jose Reynaldo Santiago, an Army veteran with post-traumatic stress disorder, was walking around his home in the middle of the night in a catatonic state with a gun in the pocket of his bathrobe.