Law enforcement seeks standard for returning voluntarily relinquished guns
by Rachael Griffin
Mar 22, 2013 | 4525 views |  0 comments | 10 10 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Guns that have been turned in to the Anniston Police Department (Anniston Star photo by Bill Wilson)
Guns that have been turned in to the Anniston Police Department (Anniston Star photo by Bill Wilson)
Local law enforcement encourages anyone who feels unsafe with a firearm in his or her house to turn the gun in at a police station, but standard protocol is nonexistent if that person later wants the gun back.

Anniston police Lt. Fred Forsythe said it’s not often locals turn in guns voluntarily, but when they do police must decide on a case-by-case basis what to do when they return to collect them. Forsythe said if a person returns to retrieve guns and police can tell “something is not right” they’ll do their best to talk the person out of it or attempt to call family.

“Nothing right now short of a court order gives us the right to hold those guns if he comes back and wants them,” Forsythe said.

The lieutenant said there are too many gray areas when it comes to guns and mental health. He said if a man turns in his guns and comes back in a month and police think he’s OK, then he gets his guns back. But Forsythe wonders if someone’s mental health should be determined by more than a glance.

“Should there be a law that says he should go to a doctor and get a clearance to have firearms?” Forsythe asked.

Forsythe suggested mental health officials, medical professionals, law enforcement officials and the public work together to find a solution.

“We need to figure out some way of setting a standard that’s constitutional and that’s beneficial to everyone,” Forsythe said. “It would take some time to sit down and discuss every aspect of it.”

Lt. Jon Garlick, a mental health officer at the Calhoun County Sheriff’s Office, said he has his own policy for dealing with guns and an “emotionally disturbed person.” Garlick said most of the time guns are given to a family member who promises they won’t allow the person in question to have access to them. If a family member is not available, Garlick said a person must present a letter from a psychiatrist detailing why they can have their guns back.

“I’m going to get some kind of assurance that says you’re not going to hurt yourself,” Garlick said.

Garlick said as far as the laws are concerned that’s all he can do, even if a person could possibly harm himself.

“It’s their property. Legally we have no right to keep it unless it’s been used in a crime and suicide is not a crime,” he said.

Garlick said he would like to see a comprehensive list of people who have been committed to state hospitals. There’s no list law enforcement can check when it comes to people who were committed in this state or any other, Garlick said, and this poses a problem when someone applies for a pistol permit.

For example, if a person is committed in Etowah County and later applies for a permit in Calhoun County, Garlick said there is no simple way to find out about the commitment.

In Jacksonville, Chief Tommy Thompson said he requires people who turn in their guns or whose guns are seized during a domestic dispute to wait at least 30 days before they are returned. Thompson refers to that time as a “cool-off period.”

The chief said he’s had times where someone has returned to collect the guns and he could tell “something was not right.” When that happens, he said, he refuses to return the guns and tells the person they can file a lawsuit to get them back. Thompson said he hasn’t been sued yet.

“Some folks get mad and they come back and some folks get mad and they’ll never come back,” Thompson said.

Thompson estimated that two or three times each month his officers have a reason to bring someone’s guns in.

Thompson said he believes protocol is needed to prevent people with mental illnesses from obtaining guns in the first place.

“Law abiding citizens of sound mind and body should be able to have (guns), but there’s folks out there that don’t need them,” Thompson said.

Staff Writer Rachael Griffin: 256-235-3562. On Twitter @RGriffin_Star.

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