Judge keeps gun ban intact for man who videotaped police

By Joe Beck

FRONT ROYAL — Andrew Studds left a courtroom Tuesday still banned from owning a gun after he tried to persuade a judge that an involuntary hospitalization for mental illness and two subsequent misdemeanor firearms violations should be no barrier to regaining his Second Amendment rights.

Warren County General District Court Judge W. Dale Houff rejected Studds’ petition after a brief but contentious hearing. Studds represented himself.

Houff said Studds had failed to provide character witnesses and fell short of other requirements in the state law governing reinstatement of gun ownership for those with criminal records or undergoing treatment for mental illness.

The judge also cited Studds’ recent guilty pleas to possessing a gun after an involuntary commitment for mental illness as another cause for concern.

“I don’t think I can put a gun in your hand,” Houff told Studds.

Studds, 27, insisted he has never been a danger to anyone, and the county should have found alternatives to the involuntary commitment to a mental hospital that was ordered for him in January 2012.

In an interview after the hearing, Studds vowed to continue trying to regain his gun ownership rights. He said he planned to contact the National Rifle Association, the Virginia Citizens Defense Organization and other gun ownership advocacy organizations for help in finding a lawyer.

Studds said the burden of proof should rest with the state, not him, in determining whether he can own a gun again under the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

“It’s the Bill of Rights, not the bill of needs,” Studds said.

Front Royal police confiscated Studds’ Taurus handgun in early May after they arrested him. The arrest was sparked when Studds videotaped police making traffic stops near his residence at the time on Cherryvale Avenue. Studds was also carrying a holstered handgun on his hip at the time of the videotaping on April 25.

Studds has argued that he was exercising his First Amendment rights through the videotaping and his Second Amendment rights in carrying the handgun.

Police did not arrest Studds immediately, but a subsequent investigation revealed he had undergone a mental evaluation at Northwestern Community Services in Front Royal and was later admitted involuntarily to the Poplar Springs Hospital in Petersburg for several days.

Studds said he also owned several other guns in addition to the Taurus seized by police. He turned the other guns, which included a shotgun, pistols, an AK47 and AR15, over to family members for safekeeping, he said.

Studds said he contacted four law enforcement agencies a few months after his release from Poplar Springs to ask whether he could resume carrying a handgun under the permit that had been issued to him a few years ago.

Officials from all four agencies – the Front Royal police, the Warren County Commonwealth’s Attorney Office, the Warren County Sheriff’s Office and Virginia State Police — told him he could carry a gun again, Studds said.

Studds said he would not have been carrying a gun with him during the videotaping incident if any of the authorities he contacted had told him it was illegal to do so.

“I guess it’s my fault I trusted the police,” Studds said.

Studds said the chain of events leading up to his involuntary commitment began when he voluntarily went to Warren Memorial Hospital in January 2012 for “a depression problem.”

After his mental health evaluation on Jan. 17, he ended up briefly in the Warren County jail before being taken to Petersburg, Studds said.

Studds told Houff that county authorities overreacted in seeking an involuntary commitment for him.

“The night I was detained at the hospital, the county did not explore lesser restrictive alternatives than detention,” Studds said, adding that, “I never presented a danger to the public.”

After reviewing the state law, Houff told Studds the ban on gun ownership would remain intact.

“I don’t think there’s any way I can grant the petition,” Houff said, referring to the request Studds submitted to him.

Studds said afterward that Front Royal police had destroyed the Taurus handgun since confiscating it, but Sgt. Jason Ryman said the gun is still being held as evidence. Ryman said he was unsure what would be done with Studds’ gun. Confiscated firearms are typically sent to the state crime laboratory after a case has been decided, Ryman said.

Outside the courthouse, Studds said his mental health is fine since finding the right treatment for his depression.

Authorities were placing him in danger by denying him the right to carry a gun in what he sees as a world fraught with dangers, Studds said.

“Shame on them if I find myself in a crossfire and can’t defend myself,” he added.

Contact staff writer Joe Beck at 540-465-5137 ext. 142, or jbeck@nvdaily.com