Law Enforcement Support Is Split As Colorado’s ‘Red Flag’ Gun Bill Advances

February 22, 2019
Photo: 2019 COLEG Red Flag Hearing 1 | Tony Spurlock - AP
Douglas County Sheriff Tony Spurlock, front, speaks as Jane Dougherty, who lost her sister, Mary Sherlack, in the mass shooting in Newtown, Ct., looks on during a hearing before the House Judiciary Committee on a bill to get a "red flag" gun law on the books in Colorado Thursday, Feb. 21, 2019, in Denver, Colo.

A measure to make it easier for courts to temporarily remove firearms from people who are determined to be a danger to themselves or others has cleared its first hurdle at the Colorado capitol.

A large crowd gathered Thursday to testify on HB 19-1177 before the House Judiciary Committee. The people who spoke at the roughly 10 hour hearing were a mix of law enforcement, concerned gun owners and people with personal stories about murder, suicide and lost loved ones. The testimony was also a reminder of how politically charged the passage of stricter gun laws can be in a state where the issue has shaped entire elections.

It was a 7-4 party-line vote to advance the bill to the House Appropriations Committee.

Supporters of the so-called “red flag” measure, which failed in the previous legislative session, say it will save lives and give more tools to law enforcement.

“People kill themselves every day with their own guns because they’re mentally ill, because they have a serious crisis at that time and the family members know about it, family members and friends know about it, but there’s no way to help them,” said Douglas County Sheriff Tony Spurlock. “This bill will help them.”

The measure is named for Zackari Parrish III, one of Spurlock’s deputies who was killed by a mentally ill man in 2017 who opened fire on law enforcement at his apartment. Spurlock said law enforcement knew for weeks that the shooter, Matthew Riehl, was in a mental health crisis.

“His mother called law enforcement and said ‘help me,’” but the imminent danger threshold for a 72-hour mental health hold was too stringent to prevent the tragedy, Spurlock said.

The bill would create extreme risk protection orders in Colorado, where family members or law enforcement could petition a court to temporarily remove someone’s guns for two weeks before they become an imminent danger, using the lowest civil standard of evidence. There would then be a second hearing on a long-term order, which requires a higher standard of evidence.

If the judge issues that second order, the weapons would be removed for 364 days. Opponents say the idea is a gross government overreach.

“This law may turn our state into a police state,” said John Anderson, a retired commander at the Castle Rock Police Department. “It’s the beginning of something I don’t think we really want.”

Photo: 2019 COLEG Red Flag Hearing 2 | Hearing Crowd - BBirkeland
A large crowd assembled to offer and listen to testimony in the first hearing for a proposed "red flag" gun bill, Feb. 21, 2019.

Anderson believes Colorado should focus on improving access to mental health, not “gun confiscation.” He also worries about what could happen when police show up to remove weapons.

“These types of calls can be deadly and dangerous and things can go wrong.”

Opponents are concerned with a new provision in the bill that would require someone to prove they’re no longer a risk in order to have their guns returned before the 364 days are up. The requirement was not in the bill Senate Republicans thwarted the year before.

While some supporters, like Spurlock, are Republican, and last year’s bill had a Republican co-sponsor, no GOP lawmaker is expected to vote for it this time. Two of the Republican lawmakers in the House who backed the last version are no longer at the capitol and prominent GOP supporter George Brauchler, the District Attorney for the 18th Judicial District, testified against the new version of the bill.

Brauchler — a candidate for Attorney General last November — was a vocal proponent of last year’s red flag measure.

“Too far left of a right idea,” he said Thursday. “I believe law enforcement should have a surgical tool. This bill does too much.”

Under the previous proposal, the extreme risk protection order was for six months. Now, it has been expanded to a year. Brauchler also thinks the evidentiary standard for the initial removal of weapons should be changed.

“If we’re going to extend the period of time we have to increase the standard.”

The dynamics are different this session because the midterm election gave Democrats the majority in both the House and Senate, which makes passage of the measure much more likely.

Photo: 2019 COLEG Red Flag Hearing 3 | Petition Copy - BBirkeland
A copy of the many petitions that Rocky Mountain Gun Owners brought to the first hearing of the "red flag" gun bill at the state Capitol.

Rocky Mountain Gun Owners, a staunch opponent of the bill, delivered boxes of petitions to the House Judiciary Committee. The group also sent Democratic lawmakers in vulnerable seats, and some members of the Judiciary Committee, letters that referenced the recall elections six years ago that ousted two Senate Democrats from office and pushed another to resign.

“In 2013, Colorado lawmakers violated our rights by passing some of the most radical and expansive gun control laws in the nation,” the petition said. “Despite leftists losing historic recall elections, anti-gun lawmakers are now calling on the passage of even more gun control, including a radical new ‘Red Flag’ gun confiscation law.”

RMGO also took a strong stand in the last election against Republicans who supported the bill.

Thirteen other states have similar extreme risk protection order laws on the books. Colorado’s bill is different in one way — it would offer free legal counsel to people who have their weapons removed and help them try to recover them.

Democratic sponsors, Majority Leader Alec Garnett of Denver and Rep. Tom Sullivan of Centennial, said the measure would prevent future tragedies.

Sullivan’s son Alex was killed in the Aurora Theater Shooting, and advocacy for stricter gun laws is what spurred him to run for office last fall. He told the committee it was tough to listen to people tell their stories about losing their loved ones to gun violence.

“I am asking you to stand up for these people who have been impacted like I have, impacted like the Parrish family has,” he said. “Stand up and do the right thing and get our law enforcement and our families the tools that they need to stop these tragedies from constantly happening. We can do better than this.”

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