As COVID-19 cases and restrictions on daily life have grown since the start of the pandemic, the Wilton Police Department has noticed trends related to gun permits and domestic violence.

Captain Robert Cipolla, who oversees operations at the WPD and is also Wilton’s Domestic Violence Liason, said the department observed a “very stark” increase in the number of individuals seeking pistol permits.

To date in 2020, the department has seen a whopping 96 applications, compared to just 22 received at the same time last year.

However, the over 300% increase, although rare for a typical year, isn’t surprising for an election year, Cipolla said. In fact, in 2016, the department received 108 applications, compared to the following year (2017) when just 45 applications were submitted.

Gun Permit Increase–A Concern?

Cipolla said while he couldn’t specifically say why this trend happens, he suspects it could be related to individuals who are worried about gun law changes depending on who is elected, as the correlation between permits and elections is clearly evident.

In fact, nationwide, the number of Americans seeking gun permits and firearms has surged since the start of the pandemic, with NPR reporting in July that “nearly half” of the new gun purchases are by first-time gun owners. The article also correlates the gun purchases with an increase in fear about the pandemic and protests.

Nonetheless, Cipolla assured that the department does not view this local trend as a safety issue.

“We don’t view it as a safety concern per se, because people do go through a process to get their pistol permit. It starts with completing an application and then arranging an appointment with one of our detectives, who will take fingerprints, which are ultimately submitted for any criminal history or disqualifying type things. But it goes through a whole application process that alleviates any major concerns for safety issues,” he explained.

For instance, any person with a domestic violence conviction would not be able to obtain a firearms permit.

However, COVID-19 introduces a whole different type of “safety” concern, because securing a permit requires an unavoidable in-person component. To secure a pistol permit in Connecticut, the police department must obtain the applicant’s fingerprints in-person–something that wasn’t possible during the pandemic’s early lockdown months.

On June 9, the Federal Courts ruled that state officials cannot prevent an individual from getting a gun permit by refusing to fingerprint them because of the pandemic, which made it easier for citizens to obtain gun permits during the health crisis.

Wilton’s police department restricted in-person services from mid-March to mid-May because of safety concerns. But since June applicants have been allowed back into Police Headquarters with many mitigation measures in place, including as a symptom questionnaire from the Wilton Health Department and temperature checks upon arrival.

Domestic Violence Stats

Cipolla, who also serves as the department’s Domestic Violence Liason, said that while officials expected domestic-related or family violence calls could go up with the lockdown due to high-stress levels during the pandemic, statistics showed otherwise, indicating calls were slightly down from last year.

As of his GMW interview the first week of September, Cipolla said the department has received 26 domestic-related calls this year, while at this time in 2019 Wilton had recorded 34 such calls. In terms of family violence calls (under the statutory definition), Wilton had 14 incidents in 2020 and 22 in 2019. There was a slight increase in cases in May over April and March, which Cipolla said was typical as there’s usually an increase as the weather warms.

However, although incidents aren’t being reported, that doesn’t mean they’re not happening. Cipolla said he knows that many people suffer silently, and he understands that sometimes people feel they can’t leave an abusive situation because of financial or emotional reasons, or because they feel they have nowhere to go.

“We know, pandemic or not, that family violence [and] domestic violence is an underreported crime, to begin with. Our message always is that obviously we’re here to respond and assist victims of domestic violence. But with that said, we certainly understand why there’s apprehension sometimes. Domestic violence crimes aren’t crimes that are happening amongst strangers per se. There’s a lot of emotion involved…Despite the abuse a victim may be experiencing from an offender it’s someone that they still very well may have an emotional attachment to,” he said.

“Based on the responses it triggers a high danger screen or a non-high danger screen but the officers always have the discretion that even if the scoring of the questionnaire comes out non-high danger but they believe something in their gut tells them this is a high danger situation they can still screen the person in as high danger based on their beliefs,” he said.

Harvard Health Blog reported that for women experiencing intimate partner violence (IPV) the pandemic can create a “perfect storm” where more victims face more harm. Not only do rates of domestic violence historically increase during times of national crisis, but the conditions of the pandemic prevent women from escaping. The lockdown from March to May put victims in an awful position where they could not run to friends for help without also putting them at risk for the virus, and with social distancing still in place. With many people restricted to working from home, many victims have lost their safe spaces or time to call for help.

Cipolla reassured that in Wilton, the department has systems in place to make sure victims are supported and offenders are held accountable in any domestic-related or family violence call that officers address.

This starts with police responders on the scene investigating a potential family violence call completing a Legality Assessment Protocol form with the victim to assess the severity of the situation. If an offender is classified as high danger, the officer will call the Domestic Violence Crisis Center, connect the victim and the advocacy group, and let them know about available services.

“The whole point of it is that research has shown what keeps victims safe is engaging in those kinds of advocacy services,” he said, adding that making the first connection to a resource at the scene makes victims more likely to seek help in the future, especially when compared to how the state previously handled these situations by handing victims a form of resources. In other words, making contact statistically makes a difference.

Cipolla’s message is that the police department is available to help or direct victims to other services, and that victims do not have to suffer in silence.

“Our goals with domestic violence are we want to hold offenders accountable, we want to keep victims safe, and we obviously work to educate and raise awareness to the issue. But what I do say is for those people that are still hesitant to involve the full use, please don’t be. At the very least, thinking safety is the paramount thing–reach out to the Domestic Violence Crisis Center through their confidential hotline, so that you can engage services, come up with safety plans that will ultimately [create] safety, which is the overall objective,” he adds.

Wilton Police Department’s Domestic Violence Liaison team has three officers assigned–Capt. Cipolla, Sergeant Anthony Cocco, and Officer Robert Smaldone, who can be reached at 203.834.6260 with non-emergency questions. The tips line is 203.563.0256 or via email.

The Wilton Police Department website lists resources that domestic violence victims can turn to. The resources explicitly list text and email options for victims who cannot talk on the phone with their abuser home. It includes CTSafeConnect, where people can call, text, email or chat 24/7 any day of the week at 888.774.2900, the Domestic Violence Crisis Center, Connecticut Coalition Against Domestic Violence, and information on how to file for a restraining order.