At least eight Prince William County residents and one Manassas City resident have had their firearms confiscated by local police since Virginia’s “red flag” law took effect last July. In every instance, the law was used to remove firearms from people who were either involved in violent domestic disputes or were experiencing a severe mental health crisis.
The new law allows a commonwealth’s attorney, law-enforcement officer or judge to petition to have a person’s firearms removed using an emergency substantial risk order, or ESRO, if they believe the person poses a threat to themselves or others. It also bars the person from purchasing any new guns until the order is removed.
Court records show that local police officers petitioned the court to confiscate residents’ firearms in all nine instances. Four followed domestic disputes and five were in response to people experiencing a severe mental health crisis, including people threatening to take their own lives or to commit “suicide by cop,” according to court records.
Police have confiscated more than 23 guns in connection with the orders. Firearms include semi-automatic rifles, shotguns and pistols. Prince William County police officials say weapons have not been returned to their owners in at least four of the eight cases but declined request for comment about the remaining four cases.
Anytime police execute an ERSO, a court hearing must be held within 14 days to allow the gun owner the opportunity to ask a judge to remove the order. A judge then rules on whether to return the guns or to have them held for six more months. The order can be extended for additional six-month periods with no limits on extensions.
New law used almost immediately
The first time local police used an emergency substantial risk order was on July 14, 2020, just two weeks after the law took effect.
Manassas City police confiscated guns from a man who police said stabbed his girlfriend in the face, neck and abdomen during a domestic dispute on July 14. Salomon Nazar was arrested in Albemarle County later that day and charged with aggravated malicious wounding.
Manassas police obtained an emergency substantial risk order to confiscate Nazar’s guns on July 14. Nazar remains at the Albemarle County jail, according to court records.
More recently, Prince William County police filed an ESRO to take guns away from a 42-year-old Manassas-area resident following a violent domestic incident. The accused, Bryan Sniffen, allegedly strangled and assaulted a woman in front of their daughter while armed with a rifle and a pistol on Jan. 17.
A 45-minute standoff with 15 Prince William County police officers ensued outside their home in an Ashland subdivision during which police say Sniffen threatened to kill police officers. Sniffen was subsequently arrested and charged with strangulation, domestic assault and battery and brandishing.
Prince William County Police obtained an order to confiscate Sniffen’s guns the following day. Sniffen is currently being held in jail awaiting trial. He was denied bond.
In another recent incident, a 33-year-old Montclair man named Adam Benson was arrested after entering a home that was not his on Dec. 23 and encountering the homeowner. When police arrived, a police officer wrote that Benson could not state what he was doing at the home. Police searched his car and found six loaded firearms, including an AR-15, two rifles, a shotgun and two pistols.
Benson’s wife later told police that her husband’s mental state was deteriorating and that he had been acting “paranoid and delusional,” according to court documents.
Benson has since been admitted to a mental health facility. Police used an emergency substantial risk order to confiscate his firearms.
On Nov. 12, Prince William County police confiscated firearms from 41-year-old military veteran who threatened to take his own life. Police said the Bristow man had told friends throughout the day that he was planning to either kill himself or commit “suicide by cop” while his 23-year-old son was inside the residence. Police wrote that the man suffers post-traumatic stress disorder.
Firearms obtained by police from the man included six rifles and six handguns, court documents show.
On Sept. 3, a 41-year-old Woodbridge woman voluntarily relinquished an AR-15 rifle to Prince William County police after threatening to kill herself. The woman sent photos of the gun and text messages to her husband stating that she would kill herself with it, police said. The police used an emergency substantial risk order to obtain the weapon.
Firearms confiscated after owners are in custody
Prince William County police spokesman 1st Sgt. Jonathan Perok said in an email that the use of emergency substantial risk orders is aimed at helping individuals get the resources they need "to improve their well-being, while at the same time ensuring everyone’s safety.”
“There is a great deal of uncertainty when someone is experiencing a crisis and may not be in their normal state of mind. This uncertainty has the propensity to potentially increase if the person has immediate or relatively easy access to weapons, including firearms,” Perok said.
Perok added that there did not appear to be any threat to the officers who carried out the task of confiscating the firearms. However, he noted that those who are subject to the orders are typically already in custody at the time that officers retrieve the weapons.
Whether police officers would be in danger while taking guns from the subjects of the emergency orders was a key topic of discussion when Virginia lawmakers debated the new law last year.
So-called "red flag” laws have been extremely controversial in Virginia. It was one of several new gun laws enacted in the wake of a mass shooting that took place at a Virginia Beach municipal building on May 31, 2019, that killed 12.
Gun rights activists and organizations, such as the Virginia Citizens Defense League, contend that the law violates the Second Amendment and allows firearms to be taken without due process. However, a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the law was dismissed the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Virginia in November 2020.
The lawsuit was defended by Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring (D). Herring said at the time that the law will “continue to save lives and keep communities safe.”
“In Virginia, we have already seen how this ‘red flag’ law has been used to save lives by keeping firearms out of the hands of someone who could use it to harm themselves or others,” Herring said.
Reach Daniel Berti at firstname.lastname@example.org