Former Bluffton man declared unfit to possess weapons to get rifles, shotgun back

cconley@islandpacket.comJuly 9, 2013 

A former Bluffton resident whose suicidal statements caused police to lock down his neighborhood last fall has been declared unfit to possess firearms. But under S.C. law, Anthony Valentino can retrieve most of his weapons, including an assault-style rifle, 12-gauge shotgun and several knives.

According to a judge's order, the only weapons Valentino can't immediately collect from police are three handguns.

"Based on a history of violence as related to the court through testimony and medical records, the court finds that the defendant is presently unfit," Circuit Court Judge Brooks Goldsmith wrote in the ruling issued last month.

Fourteenth Circuit Solicitor Duffie Stone will appeal the gun decision. He also plans to seek changes in state law to bar people declared temporarily unfit from possessing all firearms, not just handguns.

"Here's the problem: To me it is self-evident that anyone mentally unfit to handle a pistol also would be mentally unfit to handle an assault rifle. It does not appear, however, that that is clear in S.C. law," Stone said Tuesday.

Eric Erickson, Valentino's attorney, said he was pleased with the ruling and plans to ask a judge to remove the "unfit" status in a year. Erickson also said his client is pleased to be getting most of his weapons back.

THE INCIDENT AND RULING

Bluffton police have been holding at least six firearms since Sept. 12, when police and members of a SWAT team swarmed Valentino's Woods Bay Road home after he made suicidal statements to neighbors and relatives and other comments that alarmed them.

Shortly before the incident, Valentino lost his job, and his girlfriend moved to another state with their 2-year-old daughter. He also stopped taking medication for bipolar disorder and another condition four days before the incident, according to court documents.

The episode ended peacefully after Valentino left his home to take the trash out shortly after noon Sept. 12. He claimed at the time he was unaware a SWAT team was outside.

He was hospitalized involuntarily for five days after the incident, and doctors determined he posed a significant risk of physical harm to himself and others.

However, his fiancè has since indicated in a sworn affidavit that she "hacked" into his email around the time a suicidal, threatening message was sent to Valentino's relatives.

A Browning 12-gauge shotgun, a Bushmaster .223-caliber assault-style rifle, a Ruger .22-caliber rifle and three handguns were among the weapons confiscated. Police also took knives, an air rifle and several boxes of ammunition.

Goldsmith's ruling allows Valentino to collect the rifles, knives and ammo.

He can designate another party to hold his handguns until he is declared mentally fit to possess them. "Since these items are not included in (the state law), defendant may recover these items from the police department," Goldsmith wrote in the order.

Erickson said he will keep the handguns for his client, while a local relative will gather the rifles and other property.

Erickson said Valentino has moved out of state.

LEGISLATIVE FIX?

In addition to the solicitor's plan to appeal the ruling, which is expected to take months or longer, Stone wants the state legislature to amend the law so that anyone a judge deems mentally unfit to own weapons cannot possess any firearms.

The changes he's seeking are unrelated to a law the legislature passed this year requiring the state to notify federal authorities once someone has been deemed by the courts as mentally incompetent or a threat to others. That law is intended to prevent mentally ill people from buying firearms.

"The law they passed doesn't affect this, one way or another," Stone said. "This would be a clarification of the law as far as, once someone is declared mentally incompetent, that it would apply to all firearms."

Stone has already discussed the issue with state Sen. Tom Davis, R-Beaufort, and he plans to bring it up with other members of the Beaufort County legislative delegation.

Davis, who said he had not heard of a similar situation, said he would investigate the issue and take appropriate action.

"If in fact there is an ambiguity in the law," Davis said, "and in fact there has been a decision by a judge that someone who has been adjudicated mentally ill is allowed to possess a non-handgun firearm, not only I but other legislators will want to clear up that ambiguity."

Follow reporter Casey Conley at twitter.com/IPBG_Casey.

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