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Thousands of firearms confiscated in Pennsylvania from subjects of court-ordered seizures

Deb Erdley

Confiscating firearms could easily be part of the job description for deputies on the second shift at the Westmoreland County Sheriff's Office.

Sheriff Jonathan Held said the shift that begins at 3 p.m. is when deputies are sent out to serve Protection From Abuse orders that require defendants to surrender their weapons.

“We usually get about 500 to 700 weapons a year,” Held said, gesturing to the hundreds of firearms secured in an evidence room in the basement of the county courthouse. They range from pellet guns to pricey customized semiautomatic rifles.

Once confiscated, the guns are ticketed, logged in and held under lock and key for the duration of PFA orders that can last as long as three years.

PFAs are among several things that can cost gun owners their right to bear arms. That right has come under increasing scrutiny in the wake of the Valentine's Day shooting that took the lives of 17 high school students and teachers at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla.

Firearms seizures under Protection From Abuse orders are a long and established feature of Pennsylvania law. The law gives judges the option to order weapons seizures when domestic violence is an issue. Procedures for such seizures vary across the state. In Alle­gheny County, for instance, it often falls to small local police departments to carry out the court's orders.

Deputies and police officers could find themselves busier with weapons seizures if a proposal introduced Monday in the state Legislature becomes law.

The bill sponsored by state Rep. Stephen McCarter, D-Montgomery County, would permit individuals to seek so-called Extreme Risk Restraining Orders leading to temporary gun seizures, “when there is good cause to believe an individual poses an immediate threat to the safety of a family or household member, or other person, by possessing a firearm, other weapon or ammunition.”

Kim Stofler, a longtime Alle­gheny County gun rights activist and president of Firearms Owners Against Crime, opposes the bill.

“Four states (California, Connecticut, Indiana and Texas) have it now. There is no proof it has made any difference,” Stofler said. He dismissed the bill as “another effort on the part of anti-gun groups to suspend the Constitution.”

A similar bill introduced in Pennsylvania two years ago never made it out of committee. But McCarter hopes this one will have more momentum, given the increasingly urgent public debate about mass shootings and suicides.

“There is no question we have a problem in this country and we have to find a way to have this conversation,” McCarter said.

Even so, Pennsylvania judges appear hesitant to invoke existing provisions for weapons confiscation in PFAs.

Domestic violence prevention advocates say weapons confiscation orders are included in only about 14 percent of the thousands of PFA orders Pennsylvania judges issue every year. They'd like to see them included on every PFA.

Westmoreland County Senior Judge John Driscoll, who handles the bulk of the PFA filings in Westmoreland County, estimated he requires weapons to be confiscated in about one in four or five PFAs.

“There's frequently one or two handguns and a rifle. I usually do it if the spouse asks for it or if there is some other red flag. It's always better to be safe than sorry,” Driscoll said.

He said requiring such provisions on all PFAs might create storage issues, especially when gun lovers may have collections of anywhere from 20 to 150 guns.

Sabrina Korbel, a lawyer who supervises the civil law project at the Women's Shelter of Greater Pittsburgh, worries that women may be at risk during the period between when an order is issued and weapons are relinquished.

“That's a safety concern. … Here, where the volume is so great — Allegheny County judges issued about 3,600 PFAs in 2016 — and local police are asked to serve them, there is no guarantee when an order will be served,” she said.

PFAs are among the court orders that the Pennsylvania State Police log into the Pennsylvania Instant Check System (PICS) database. It also includes records of mental incompetency rulings and involuntary mental health commitments as well as criminal convictions. Such findings raise red flags on background checks during gun purchases.

Hundreds of thousands of names have been entered into the state database, which is fed into the National Instant Check System (NICS) database. To date, the Pennsylvania State Police have submitted more than 700,000 mental health records into the database.

In 2016, state police said the database handled more than 1.1 million background checks for licensed firearms dealers, sheriffs and law enforcement agencies across the state.

Only about 2 percent of background searches triggered denials based on red flags. State police said the searches also spurred the arrest of 152 individuals who had outstanding arrest warrants when they tried to purchase a gun.

Debra Erdley is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach her at 412-320-7996 or [email protected] or via Twitter @deberdley_trib


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Dan Speicher | Tribune-Review
Sgt. Scott Pfeiffer, evidence room supervisor for the Westmoreland County Sheriff's Department, shows off a collection of guns that have been confiscated through court-ordered seizure due to a protection from abuse order, inside the gun vault at the Westmoreland County Courthouse in Greensburg on Tuesday, Feb. 27, 2018.
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