First his daughter had died in 2015, and then his wife had died two days earlier while in hospice care in their living room. A medical technician had come to take away her hospital bed early the next day, and McGuire told the man he wanted to burn down his house and shoot himself. “What else do I have to lose?”
LISBON, Conn. — John McGuire was inside his house with 81 guns when five state troopers were dispatched to investigate a threat he had reportedly made. They drove past a series of frozen lakes and up an unplowed driveway to a house set back in the Connecticut woods. The shades were drawn. A tattered mattress wasted away on the front porch, and boxes of medical equipment cluttered the entryway.
McGuire, 76, came to the door wearing a stained sweatshirt and uncombed gray hair. He hadn’t dealt with police in the two decades since he retired from the force himself, but he still knew the legal statutes and understood his rights. He asked the police if he was under arrest, and the officers said he was not. He asked if he had broken any laws, and they said he hadn’t. They told him he wasn’t being charged, or investigated, or even accused of any crime. Instead, they had come to search his house this winter evening based on a controversial type of warrant, one that represents the United States’ latest piecemeal attempt to prevent gun violence.
“Person Posing Risk to Self or Others,” read the bold lettering on top of the warrant.
Probable cause: “McGuire stated to a medical technician that . . . he was going to kill himself by burning his house down and blowing his head off with a revolver.”
Number of registered firearms: “38 or more.”
Purpose of search: “Take any and all firearms to prevent imminent personal injury.”
In the polarizing gun debate, here was the latest attempt at a solution: civil seizures that allow police to temporarily take guns from at-risk owners without consent after a credible threat is reported. Gun-control advocates say it is a common-sense way to prevent suicides, murders and mass shootings. Some gun owners say it is the manifestation of their greatest fear, in which the government confiscates legal guns from the homes of law-abiding citizens. Five states have passed versions of the law. Eighteen more and the District are considering doing so.
Nowhere is the approach used more than in Connecticut, which instituted the country’s first “red flag” law in 1999 and where each year about 200 cases tell the story of a nation always on the precipice of the next shooting. An opioid addict threatened to show his “favorite semi-automatic” to a nurse who refused to provide more pills. A fired parking attendant told his co-workers that he would “give a whole new meaning to going postal.” A mother discovered her 19-year-old son in his bedroom writing a suicide note. “Three guns to choose from. Which does the job?”
Each time a threat is reported, police can seize a person’s guns for up to two weeks before a court decides if and when those firearms will be returned. Case by case, judges weigh questions at the heart of the United States’ complicated relationship with guns. When does the right to public safety eclipse the right to bear arms? Out of the country’s estimated 95 million gun owners, which tiny fraction might be dangerous?
In the case of McGuire, the gun owner was a recent widower who had been diagnosed with melanoma. He let the officers into his house, walked them to his bedroom and began handing them guns stacked in his closet, guns lying under his bed and a gun sitting beside his nightstand. There were antique rifles, semiautomatics and miniature pistols still unopened in their boxes. “My babies,” was what McGuire sometimes called his guns, which he had been collecting for five decades since he joined the Army.
“Will I get them back?” he asked as the officers carried guns out by the armful, and an officer said there would be a court hearing in a few weeks. McGuire tried to explain that his threat was actually a misunderstanding — a heated comment made after a series of horrible events. First his daughter had died in 2015, and then his wife had died two days earlier while in hospice care in their living room. A medical technician had come to take away her hospital bed early the next day, and McGuire told the man he wanted to burn down his house and shoot himself. “What else do I have to lose?” he remembered saying.
A few officers continued to search his house while another drove McGuire to the hospital for a voluntary mental-health evaluation. His blood pressure was dangerously high. He was agitated and tearful. A doctor handed him an intake form, and for the first time McGuire began to consider the questions that would determine so much about the next few weeks.
“How often are you angry?”
“Do you ever have feelings of losing control?”
He returned home from the hospital that night with a prescription for antidepressants, a booklet labeled “Tips for Self Care” and a three-page printout of the guns no longer in his house. The list included Winchesters, Remingtons, Rugers, Berettas, Colts and Glocks — a high-end collection that McGuire considered one of his biggest investments.
“Obviously there’s the sentimental value, but this is also a major part of my savings,” McGuire said later that week to a lawyer who had agreed to represent him in the case. The lawyer, Chuck Norris, was an old friend from the police force, and he explained to McGuire that to get his guns back at the upcoming hearing they would need to prove he was neither a threat to others nor a risk to himself.
“They see 81 guns, and alarm bells are going off,” Norris said. “We need to show that you’re responsible and that you’re someone who only uses these guns the right way.”
In truth, McGuire could barely remember the last time he fired one of his guns. Had it been three years? Or maybe five? He’d long ago dropped his membership to the small shooting gallery near his house. He’d never discharged his weapon during 17 years on the police force, and his only shots in the Army had come during occasional training exercises. On his last hunting trip, he’d somehow managed to stalk and kill a beautiful moose in Maine, and the guilt that followed made him give much of the meat away to a local food bank. What he said he loved most about guns was not the hunting, or the culture, or even the thrill of pulling a trigger. It was the way that holding a weapon in his hand could make him feel in control when so many other aspects of his life did not.
He’d begun collecting guns in the late 1970s, not long after his only child was diagnosed with Ewing’s sarcoma, a rare cancer. His wife, Bridie, started spending her evenings in a Catholic church, but McGuire wasn’t ready to pray to a God who’d given his 11-year-old daughter a degenerative cancer. He started lifting weights to deal with his anger, and soon he was dead-lifting 580 pounds.
All three of them coped with the disease in part by starting their own collections. His daughter bought refrigerator magnets to commemorate each place she visited, from Ireland to Dollywood to Nova Scotia, a reminder of life beyond the disease. His wife stockpiled Hummel figurines, because she liked seeing hundreds of idyllic porcelain children all over the house. And McGuire bought guns, because he said they made him feel as if he was protecting his family, even as his daughter’s cancer rendered him powerless. His daughter started chemotherapy, and he bought four revolvers from the Norwich police department. She started radiation, and he purchased a combat rifle from a dealer in Florida. Doctors removed a kidney, and he bought a .44 magnum. They took out part of her intestines, and he bought a pistol that looked like one made famous by James Bond. His collection grew over three decades of his daughter’s health emergencies — through 11 surgeries and dozens of infections, until the one that killed her at age 46 in the spring of 2015.
His wife had never seen the point of owning so many guns, especially when the only intruders on their property were raccoons and deer. She wanted him to get rid of them, McGuire said, but in the months after their daughter died, he was increasingly grief-stricken and angry, and he felt convinced that much about the United States was coming dangerously undone. He watched TV each night as the news cycled through stories about opioids, illegal immigration and the shrinking white middle class. “It could reach the point where there’s another civil war,” he told Bridie, so he bought more ammunition and promised to protect her.
By then she had started to forget little things, sometimes leaving the stove on after she cooked or making wrong turns on the way home from the grocery store. She blamed her lapses on the fog of grief, but before long doctors had diagnosed her with advanced dementia. Within a few months she entered hospice care, spending every moment in a hospital bed in their living room as McGuire taught himself to become a caretaker. He spoon-fed her three meals each day, applied her makeup because it made her feel better about herself, and changed her sheets and diapers each night. He slept next to her in a recliner facing the door with a pistol near his side, just in case. The gun couldn’t protect her from rapid memory loss. It couldn’t protect her from the nightmares that sometimes left her shouting and grasping in the night at imaginary objects in front of her head. She said she was scared. She said she didn’t want to die by herself. She said she wanted McGuire to come with her. And then he was alone with a medical technician who came to clean and prepare the body, using a string to slide a wedding ring of 53 years off his wife’s swollen finger, and McGuire’s thoughts had gone back to the one thing that gave him a sense of control. A gun. He was ready to end it.
“She wanted me to go with her,” he remembered telling the technician that day, and then hours later the police were at his door.
Now empty gun boxes left over from their search were strewn around his house, and a holster dangled on the bedroom doorknob. He hadn’t washed dishes or done laundry in a week. The kitchen table was cluttered with 19 prescription bottles of his wife’s medications, and McGuire wondered why the police hadn’t taken those, too. “Pills, knives, ropes, belts, cars — there are so many other ways, if I really wanted to do it,” he said.
His daughter’s travel magnets were still on the refrigerator. His wife’s Hummel figurines remained on their shelves. On the table in front of him was the self-care booklet, which suggested that one way to take back control was to begin by asking for support.
He reached for his cellphone and called a friend.
“Can you come get me?” he asked. “I probably need to get out of here.”
A few hours later a pickup truck pulled into McGuire’s driveway, and Rich DeLorge rolled down his window and leaned hard against his horn. “Hurry up!” he shouted, and eventually McGuire walked outside holding both of his middle fingers high in the air.
“What the hell took you so long?” DeLorge asked as McGuire climbed into the passenger seat.
“Screw you,” he said.
“Are we angry and depressed again?”
“What do you think?”
“Well, you’re still breathing, so at least you haven’t gone off and done it yet.”
“You’re an asshole,” McGuire said, but then they both started to laugh. DeLorge was McGuire’s oldest friend — one of the few people who had regularly come to visit during Bridie’s final weeks — and seeing him usually improved McGuire’s outlook more than the antidepressants or the bereavement group he’d tried joining at the hospital. He had no energy for making small talk with strangers, which was one of the reasons he had decided against holding a wake for Bridie. He didn’t want to hear people tell him that they understood when in fact they didn’t or that things would get better when he felt certain they never would. He had no patience left for pretending. He wanted to be honest — which often meant being sulky, angry, bitter or mean — and for that he had DeLorge.
They had met 30 years earlier, when McGuire was investigating a tip about a fight involving DeLorge’s motorcycle club. McGuire had interviewed DeLorge and found him to be honest, funny and apologetic, so instead of arresting him, McGuire had let him off with a warning. That was how he liked to police — paying less attention to the letter of the law than to the nuances of each situation. Sometimes the drunk at the bar just needed to take a walk, or the driver had a good reason for speeding.
“You only bring in the courts if it’s the absolute last resort,” he said now in the car, thinking again about his guns. “If it had been me on the other side of that door, no way would I have started seizing property. I would have sat the guy down, bought him a cup of coffee, maybe asked about his family, checked up on how he was doing.”
Attendees of the annual CPAC conference offer a strong defense of the Second Amendment while also addressing mental health. (Jordan Frasier/The Washington Post)
“It’s not about people anymore,” DeLorge said. “It’s all about rules and regulations.”
“Maybe I was just blowing off steam,” McGuire said. “Maybe I’d been through hell for the last two years. They ever stop and think about that?”
“So you collect guns. What’s the big deal?” DeLorge said, because even if he thought McGuire was depressed, he didn’t consider him dangerous or suicidal.
“I don’t bother anybody,” McGuire said. “I don’t break the law. I don’t even drink. And then they come and do this to me at the worst possible time.”
They didn’t have any place in particular to go, so DeLorge drove for more than an hour to the far northern corner of the state, and then he stopped at an abandoned gas station where people had gathered for a small auction. There were 30 folding chairs set up around a small space heater. The room smelled of marijuana, and a food vendor sold expired bags of chips for 25 cents. People rotated to the front of the room to take turns selling off their items. “Who will give me three bucks for this nice candle, guys?” the first auctioneer began. “Warm vanilla. Two bucks? A dollar? Anyone for a dollar?” Next it was miniature teddy bears, camouflaged umbrellas, Second Amendment T-shirts and coffee mugs with handles shaped like guns. There were six auctioneers and nine potential customers, at least one of whom wasn’t bidding.
“Congratulations on finding the one place even more depressing than my house,” McGuire told DeLorge, and a few minutes later they were headed home.
They drove back across the railroad tracks and past a row of decaying textile mills. “This state’s going to hell for the working class,” McGuire said. They passed through a tiny town called Canterbury, where McGuire said there had been an armed robbery two nights before. “Heroin addicts everywhere,” he said. “Everyone out for themselves, just no regard for human life.” They drove by a 19th-century mansion that had fallen into disrepair and been subdivided into multifamily homes. “Probably all immigrants now,” he said. “Probably on welfare.” They drove through Jewett City, where an atheist had filed a noise complaint against the Baptist church on Main Street for ringing its hourly electronic bell. “Goddamn nanny state,” he said. “They just passed a law that says I can’t take a piss in my own yard. Can’t burn your trash. Can’t keep my own damned guns.”
“All right, sunshine. Take it easy,” DeLorge said.
“This whole country’s going to hell,” McGuire said, and now there were tears in his eyes, and he was thinking about the thing that had been troubling him most during the past few days. His wife was a loyal Catholic who knew exactly where she was going after death, and lately McGuire thought he knew where he might be going, too.
“I have so much hate in my heart,” he said.
“Yeah, you’re a real asshole,” DeLorge said, laughing, but this time McGuire didn’t laugh. They pulled into his driveway, and he opened the passenger door to get out.
“You okay?” DeLorge asked.
“Terrific,” he said.
“Hey. I’m being serious,” DeLorge said, but McGuire was already out the door and walking up the driveway toward his house.
Was he okay?
That was the question again one morning later that month at the small courthouse in downtown Norwich. Norris, McGuire’s attorney, had pushed back the hearing by a few weeks to better prepare his case, and when the court date finally arrived McGuire decided not to attend. It was a civil case, so he had no legal obligation to appear. He knew almost everyone at the courthouse from his time as a police officer and a marshal, and he didn’t want to run into dozens of former colleagues on his way to a risk warrant hearing.
“I’m still not ready to deal with condolences and questions from all those people,” he said, so instead he hoped Norris would relay a message to the court: that it was being without his guns that made him feel “stressed, vulnerable and at risk,” he said, and that he was sorry for “saying something dumb.”
“Tell them I got caught up in the heat of the moment,” McGuire told Norris, and then he stayed alone in his house and waited near the phone as the hearing began.
“This is a good man who’s gone through an incredibly difficult time,” Norris told the court.
“There is compelling evidence here that Mr. McGuire’s threat was likely situational,” the prosecutor agreed, because he knew and trusted McGuire’s attorney, and also because he had been provided with a doctor’s report that said McGuire was “healthy” and “grieving.”
And then it was up to the judge. She thought McGuire’s circumstances seemed potentially volatile. She also said she empathized with him. Connecticut had ruled in hundreds of risk warrant cases during the past decade, with an average of seven guns seized each time. In most cases, judges ordered that the guns would remain in police storage for a year. Ten percent of the time, the guns were returned to owners immediately. In 14 percent, the guns were taken away permanently and then sold or destroyed.
The judge looked again at McGuire’s file. He had no history of violence. He had admitted making a threat, but now he said the threat had passed.
“The guns are to be returned immediately to John McGuire,” the court ruled, and a few minutes later Norris called McGuire to tell him. He said it was the best news of his year. He said he would once again feel whole and safe. “I can finally calm down and breathe,” he said, and a few days later he was carrying 81 guns back up the long driveway and into his house.