Katrina Inspires Bans on Gun Seizures
By Pauline Vu, Staff Writer
In the days after Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans police went door to door and confiscated guns from citizens in an effort to counter chaos and crime in the wrecked city.
But gun advocates saw the seizures as an infringement on constitutional rights and said never again.
The actions of the New Orleans police have inspired 13 states, including Louisiana, to enact laws to keep state and local officials from taking guns during a state of emergency, such as after a natural disaster or terrorist attack. President Bush also signed a bill in October that would penalize states financially for illegally confiscating guns during an emergency.
Missouri Gov. Matt Blunt (R) signed an emergency weapons bill on April 12 to become the 13 th state with such a law on the books, joining Alaska, Florida, Idaho, Kentucky, Louisiana, Michigan, Mississippi, New Hampshire, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Virginia and West Virginia. A measure also is on the desk of Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano (D).
Similar bills were introduced in at least 14 other states this year.
"We can never too soon forget the injustice that went on in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, where law-abiding individuals' firearms were taken away from them just when they needed to protect themselves the most," said Julie Tanna, a spokeswoman for the National Rifle Association (NRA), a lobbying group that opposes gun control. The NRA successfully sued to get New Orleans' residents their guns back and has vowed to push for state laws to block confiscations.
While several of the bills have sailed through legislatures with few no votes, law enforcers have raised objections. Critics complain the emergency gun bills are too broad and would hamper state leaders and law enforcement officials during an emergency.
State Rep. Beth Low (D) was one of the bill's two dissenters in the Missouri House. "There's a sincere desire to protect our communities and allow them to protect themselves. I don't think anything's wrong with that, but I believe there are unintended consequences to this legislation that could be very destructive in an emergency," she said.
Among the problems Low has with Missouri's new law: It doesn't specifically define what an emergency is; it restricts not just the confiscation of weapons and ammunition, but also the transfer and sale of them; and it doesn't expressly prohibit people from bringing their guns to an emergency shelter.
Charley Wilkison, the political and legislative director for the Combined Law Enforcement Associations of Texas (CLEAT), agrees with that last concern. Although CLEAT backs people's right to keep guns during an emergency, the group would support an amendment to a Texas bill that would ensure that people cannot bring their guns to emergency shelters, such as the New Orleans Superdome following Katrina.
"Can you imagine a massive gathering of humanity under the most horrible set of circumstances, where you're hopeless, you're afraid, you can't locate members of your family, you don't know if they're alive or dead. … Then you add guns to that mix," he said. "I think we'd be supportive of that being a gun-free environment."
The Georgia Bureau of Investigation (GBI) opposed a bill introduced this session because it included civil penalties for officers who improperly confiscate weapons. "It just doesn't take into consideration the difficult conditions in emergencies that police are placed in, and having to decide who's the good guy and who's the bad guy," said John Bankhead, the GBI's legislative liaison. The bill failed to pass before crossover day, the last day a bill must pass at least one chamber in the General Assembly to be considered for passage.
But state Rep. Russell Pearce (R), sponsor of the Arizona bill, said other laws already give police the power to confiscate guns from people committing crimes. He said his bill simply ensures that people who aren't committing crimes are protected from confiscation during an emergency - a time when they may need their weapons the most.
"We're not a police state. You don't go and abuse good citizens because of your concern for their safety," Pearce said. "It's a shame that we have to write a law to protect basic constitutional rights."