A little-known Indiana law authorizing police to seize firearms possessed by a person deemed a danger to themselves or others could become a national model as leaders seek ways to prevent the next school massacre.
President Donald Trump reportedly is considering a plan to offer federal grants or other incentives to encourage states to adopt measures similar to the "red flag" law currently in effect in Indiana.
The Hoosier State is one of just five in the nation to have such a law. California, Oregon, Washington and Connecticut also have a "red flag" law on their books.
The 2005 Indiana statute was enacted by the Republican-controlled General Assembly and Republican Gov. Mitch Daniels after a man who previously had displayed signs of dangerous behavior used a semi-automatic rifle and two handguns to shoot five Indianapolis police officers, killing one. The law is named after Timothy "Jake" Laird, the officer fatally shot.
Under the law, a police officer who believes a dangerous individual no longer should have a firearm can present a sworn affidavit to a judge detailing why the officer believes the person is dangerous and identifying the specific location of the firearm.
Police also can take firearms — without a warrant — from a person suspected to be dangerous if an officer later obtains judicial consent.
‘Confiscate the handguns’
According to court records, the law was used at least 46 times last year in Indiana to take firearms from dangerous individuals. The exact number is unknown since not all Indiana counties use the statewide court-case management system.
Indiana’s “red flag” law allowed Lake County Sheriff’s police to seize weapons from a Crown Point area man’s home this past January, said Cmdr. Michael Stewart, head of investigations.
The man’s wife called 911 after her husband, who takes psychiatric medications for mental illness, locked himself in a bathroom and was having delusions that people were hiding in the home's attic, Stewart said.
Police were able to safely calm the man that day. Radio dispatch had relayed to police the man had firearms in the home — a key fact Stewart recalled when they were sent to the home the next morning a second time for a similar disturbance.
“I just happened to be on the radio (that morning) and I told them, ‘Make sure you confiscate the handguns,' ” Stewart said.
“Criminal charges were not appropriate here,” Stewart said. “But we were able to confiscate the guns because the statute gives the immediate power without the delay of having to get a search warrant or secure criminal charges.”
To qualify as dangerous, a person must present an imminent risk of personal injury to themselves or another individual, the law says.
A person who poses a future risk also can be classified as dangerous if the person has a diagnosed mental illness and a pattern of not taking his or her medication, or there is other documented evidence the person has a propensity for violent or emotionally unstable conduct.
That was the case in Lake County, Stewart said, noting police learned from his wife the man was not taking his medications. After the seizure of weapons, police presented a judge with an affidavit outlining why they felt it was necessary to confiscate the weapons.
Stewart said the man’s case is ongoing and his firearms have not been returned to him.
The law is about balancing public safety with a person’s right to due process, he added.
If the judge concludes there's probable cause to believe the person is dangerous and in possession of a firearm, the judge can issue a warrant for police to seize the weapon.
Within two weeks of the initial seizure, the judge must hold a hearing to allow the person whose firearms were taken a chance to get them back.
If prosecutors cannot show by clear and convincing evidence the person remains too dangerous to have a gun, then police must return it. Otherwise, the firearms will be retained by police for up to five years and then disposed of.
Until then, the person who lost his or her gun can request a hearing every six months on whether the person continues to be too dangerous to possess a firearm.
Even before the Parkland, Florida, shooting, Stewart said the Lake County Sheriff's Department created an affidavit template to further aid officers in filling out the proper paperwork.
Capt. Derek Allen, spokesman for the LaPorte County Sheriff's Department, said police seized four firearms last year in four separate cases of attempted suicides, potentially saving lives.
"Any law that is going to protect a dangerous individual, or another individual with whom they may have contact, is a benefit," Allen said.
'An important tool'
Senate President David Long, R-Fort Wayne, who worked on the 2005 legislation, said the law is an important tool for Hoosier safety and worth other states emulating, because "it gives us the ability to deal with a troubled person and their weapon."
He insisted that it shouldn't be viewed as the government coming for people's guns because of the significant due process rights built into the statute.
Griffith Police Chief Greg Mance said his officers have had occasions where "high risk gun owners" have been identified and their weapons confiscated under the "red flag" law.
Once complaints were verified and a person has been deemed dangerous by officers and investigators, action is immediately taken, Mance added.
In these instances, action has resulted in the removal of firearms, following the formal procedures outlined by Indiana law.
In Griffith's most recent case, in January 2016, a gun owner suffering dementia-like symptoms was displaying erratic and dangerous behavior, Mance said.
"With the assistance of family and a psychological evaluation, we removed the weapons and, with the owner’s permission, the weapons were transferred to a family member and ultimately sold," he said.
In another incident, in February 2014, Griffith police removed several weapons from a home after the owner was charged with violation of a protection order.
"Through a plea agreement reached between the courts and the gun owner, the weapons were ordered to be permanently removed from the subject’s possession and were ultimately sold by the owner’s son," he said.
Mance said over the years, police been able to resolve such situations without the "red flag" law through psychological referrals, family intervention, court orders, and voluntary surrender of weapons.
'Intend to fully implement'
Hammond Police Chief John Doughty said his department, in most cases, waits for a determination from a judge before releasing firearms back to people.
But if no arrest was made in a case, and firearms were seized, a person could petition the Hammond Police Department for their weapons. In those cases, an investigation is completed to determine if the person is legally allowed to possess a firearm by state law. If all criteria is met, the firearms would be released to that individual.
The department views the 2005 law as an opportunity to permanently retain seized weapons and not return them to people who cannot lawfully possess a weapon or who pose a continual threat to the community, Doughty said.
“We intend to fully implement this law into departmental policy,” Doughty said.
A spokeswoman for the Porter County Sheriff’s Department said deputies there have used the “red flag” law in the past, deferring further comment to the prosecutor’s office for additional information.
Several other police departments in the Region did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Republican Attorney General Curtis Hill, who encouraged Trump to consider applying Indiana's law to the entire country, likewise said it "is a common-sense measure that in no way inhibits the Second Amendment rights of law-abiding citizens."
State Rep. Charlie Brown, D-Gary, co-sponsored the "red flag" statute, which passed the Legislature as House Enrolled Act 1776.
He said, "It's such a pleasant surprise that for once we in Indiana are out front on something, rather than bringing up the rear end, be it any kind of legislation or policies."
At the same time, Brown believes Indiana would be better off if it imposed more stringent requirements on all firearms purchases and allowed urban areas to enact more gun restrictions than rural parts of the state.