Gov. Jared Polis says he supports a ban on ghost guns and expanding the state’s ‘Red Flag’ law

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27min 49sec
Hart Van Denburg/CPR News
Gov. Jared Polis waits outside the House chamber before delivering his 2013 State of the State address on Tuesday, Jan. 17, 2023.

Gov. Jared Polis said on Tuesday he’d ban unregistered ghost guns in Colorado but he would not name any other weapon he would outlaw, despite a proposal floated by a group of Democratic lawmakers to make some assault weapons illegal.

Gun control will be a major issue at the legislature after the mass shooting in November that killed five people at Club Q in Colorado Springs and injured many more.

In his State of the State speech Tuesday, Polis called for expansion of Colorado’s Red Flag law, which allows temporary confiscation of guns from people who may pose a threat to themselves or others. And he backed a ban on ghost guns, which can’t be traced back to their owners and are often made in home garages using mail-order parts.

The governor didn’t talk about other ideas lawmakers have raised, including a proposal by some Democrats to ban what they describe as assault weapons, including some semi-automatic rifles and pistols, and some shotguns. People who currently own those types of guns could keep them.

In an interview with Colorado Matters, Polis first declined to talk about the specifics of the proposal. Pressed, he said assault weapons are already heavily regulated and it’s more important to focus on getting guns out of the hands of people who pose an immediate threat. Gun legislation is just one of many topics senior host Ryan Warner discussed in a one-on-one interview with the governor at the state capitol Tuesday.

This transcript has been edited for length and clarity.

Full Transcript

Ryan Warner: Governor, thanks for being with us again.

Gov. Jared Polis: Always a pleasure. Ryan.

Warner: You made affordable housing a huge emphasis in your state of the state speech. By rough count, the word housing came up 37 times. At one point you said we should, quoting here, “legalize more housing options now.” Specifically, what housing options should be legalized that aren't now available?

Polis: This is something that has really touched almost every Coloradan and that's because the cost of a home in Colorado is a lot more than it used to be. We can look around the corner, and I even brought this up by name. I mean, you see states like California, they have cities with average home prices above a million dollars, 16-lane highways, bumper-to-bumper traffic. We cannot let Colorado become California, and we can really make sure that we have more housing close to where jobs are and along transit corridors. And that means more opportunities for people to live, multi-family apartments on transit corridors near bus and rail, and empowering homeowners to be part of the solution. That includes things like accessory dwelling units.

Warner: Accessory dwelling units would be like allowing someone to build on their property extra room.

Polis: That's right. It would be kind of a detached unit many homeowners would use it to rent. You could potentially subdivide as well. But what it is, is it's more housing now. We need more housing in our state. Supply and demand dictates pricing. Demand is high. That's a great thing. People want to live in Colorado, but supply has not kept up with demand and it's made homes unaffordable and unattainable for many Coloradans well into their twenties, thirties, forties, and we've got to do more to have more low-cost homes for both sale and rent close to where jobs are for convenience and for livability and for sustainability.

Warner: So are you saying now that there are places in this state where accessory dwelling units, for instance, or any of the other housing options you've talked about, where that's outright illegal? And would the states say to a municipality, “You've got to make that legal or else?”

Polis: Well, it’s about all of the above, Ryan. I mean, you show me a strategy that'll lead to more housing along transit corridors and close to where jobs are and we're for it. What the alternative is, and what's happening in our state is exurban sprawl. If people have to go further and further out to be able to even put a roof over their head, more traffic on our roads, worse air quality, more time lost in commute, 45 minutes, 50 minutes each way, less livability. So for people, for planet and prosperity, we need housing reform. We need land use reform. The last time the state looked at this was in 1974. We were a very different state in 1974 than we are today and we need to make sure that we prepare Colorado's next 150 years to be even more amazing than our last 150 years as we near our 150th birthday.

Warner: You singled out communities you think are doing well when it comes to affordable housing, among them Breckenridge and Greeley. Get specific with me about what kind of stick you have, I guess, versus carrot, if there's a municipality that is resistant to this kind of development.

Polis: So the reason we highlighted the work between Breckenridge and Summit County is they were able to get a project done, modular housing, lower cost, less than six months of planning. What happens in many parts of our state is needed-housing is mired in red tape and costly delays for years. Sometimes it never even happens. Sometimes the investors move on. Sometimes the market changes.

Warner: And so one of the examples you've cited there in a way, pushes fast forward on this. How soon do you think you can start to make a dent in supply if you change these kinds of rules?

Polis: Very soon? I mean, it's amazing. We talked about Fading West, which makes manufactured housing. They are now able to complete a home in their factory in 12 days. This would take nine months, a year, if it was onsite construction. It'd be even more difficult if it was in, you know, Eagle or Summit or Grand County where it can be, you know, negative five degrees and you have to halt construction for a week in winter. So the promise of innovation, the promise of new technology, pairing this with land use, sustainability and water policy is going to be a key part of making sure Colorado continues to thrive and that we continue to remain Colorado.

Warner: In the State of the State speech, you mentioned using state lands for housing. Is that a role the government should take on or does it ultimately interfere with the private market?

Polis: We own some land. The state of Colorado certainly owns some, the federal government owns even more in our state. But we want to aggressively look at where we have land that can be better used for housing rather than sitting empty or a parking lot. And not just the state; I’ve very specifically called on school districts, RTD, cities, counties, to all look through their land inventory and if they have the ability to contribute and be part of reducing housing costs and being the solution, they should. 

And again, we're putting our money where our mouth is as a state and we're saying this is what we're doing. We highlighted the Dow Junction property in Eagle County, where we were moving forward with 80 units for affordable workforce housing, close to where needed jobs are with a workforce that's under great duress. And we're able to utilize this property from the state landlord at Colorado Department of Transportation.

Warner: So if there's someone who wants to build, like an accessory dwelling unit, I think a lot of us might know this as a mother-in-law suite, and their town says, “Nope, you can't do that. Our local zoning laws don't allow for it.” Do we then picture Governor Polis stepping in and saying, “You’ve got to do this.”

Polis: It's not about the state or local government telling you what you can and can't do. It's about what your rights as a property owner are. And property owners have rights. And of course, those rights should be extended if they want to be part of the housing solution and provide additional housing for rent or subject to subdivision for sale on their single family lot.

Warner: And so you think that idea of what I do with my property, especially if I'm contributing to affordable housing, that should speak louder in a way than some local zoning rules?

Polis: I think that property owners need more rights and more ability to be part of the housing solution and that very well means, you know, duplexes, triplexes. It means the ability to say, look, “I live in a single family zone. I value that. We want to protect the character of our community, and I want to be part of the solution on housing rather than part of the problem on housing.” And that should be something that's up to homeowners. And I know that many homeowners across our state will really rise to the task where they're currently prevented from being part of the solution and will become part of the solution.

Warner: I want to talk about the state's free universal preschool program. Enrollment begins this week, and a key question is staffing those preschools with childcare professionals. You've made recruitment a top priority. You're offering incentives to open new childcare centers. There's training for workers, even tax credits for those who hire on. But, as you noted in a Yoda voice in your State of the State speech, it's a tight labor market. Child care jobs are relatively low-paid. So is the answer to this long-term commitment to universal preschool, is the answer one-time incentives or is it a more sustainable raising of salaries across the board? Where does the money come from?

Polis: First, everybody who is the parent or guardian of a three-year-old, who will be flour next year, can go to to sign up your kid for preschool and it's free.

Warner: I tried this this morning and I entered my zip code and it came up with options near me.

Polis: Yes, exactly, and the parent can choose between many options, and it can even be one that's near your work as opposed to near where you live. Maybe you want to drop off your kid close to work. So all those options are available. School districts, community providers, and it's basically a half-day program for preschool academically appropriate. 

Many parents want a full day; that still costs them out-of-pocket money, although there are some full-day availability for low-income, but half day free for everybody, preparing kids for academic success. We included in our workforce, we're building on our success in improving the health care workforce. Remember, so many people in health care burned out during the pandemic and had to work triple shifts and retired early, etc. We made it free to become a nurse assistant, a phlebotomist, an EMT. It increased enrollment and it increased the number of folks pursuing those programs. We’re expanding that to fields like construction, law enforcement, but notable here, early childhood. 

So a professional, early childhood certificate will be free if our proposal passes in Colorado to help with the workforce. And I would also add that the preschool funding, which voters passed overwhelmingly in Prop EE which we supported, will also help compensate early childhood and preschool teachers better, to be able to successfully recruit and retain the very best people to prepare our kids for success.

Warner: And that was tobacco tax money, if I recall. Speaking of paying for things, I spoke right after your speech with Republican House Minority leader Mike Lynch, who represents Northern Colorado. And he's concerned that spending is getting out of control. That you want to raise per pupil funding for K through 12 schools for instance. You announced a $120 million clean energy tax credit package.

State Rep. Mike Lynch: “We're moving down some green initiatives and we’re using transportation dollars for that before we fix the roads in this state. Until we've made some sort of transition where people actually want to be dependent on public transit, our roads are a mess. And I'm really worried the money will be diverted away from good roads for those people that can't afford the  electric cars, or the bus just doesn't work for them.”

Speak to the concerns that roads may suffer, particularly in rural Colorado, and his general concern that there will be too much spending.

Polis: So our clean energy tax credit program, including support to reduce the cost of electric vehicles, to reduce the cost of e-bikes, to position Colorado for success for geothermal and hydrogen and carbon sequestration, doesn't take one dime from the road funding. It's a tax credit program. Thanks to the work of the legislature with House Bill 260 two years ago, we really updated the way we fund roads and bridges in Colorado, leading to $5 billion of additional investment over the next 10 years, paired with the American Infrastructure Act, which is sending billions of dollars to our state under the same period. 

So fundamentally, road projects are happening and we're moving forward with improving the quality of our roads and bridges and access to various parts of our state with the funding we have from state and federal sources. And we're not in any way, shape or form playing any of the renewable energy tax credits against any of the important work to improve our roads.

Warner: And the notion that there are a lot of commitments you're making fiscally at a time of uncertainty?

Polis: Well, you know, every year the governor's charged with delivering a balanced budget. We not only delivered a balanced budget, but we did so with record reserve levels to prepare for a rainy day.

Warner: It is clear that guns will be a big issue this session. Let's talk about a couple of proposals you didn't mention in your State of the State, but that lawmakers have said they plan to introduce. One group of Democrats is working on a bill to ban firearms that fall under the umbrella of assault weapons. That would include some types of semi-automatic rifles and some types of 50 caliber rifles, semi-automatic pistols, some shotguns. People who already own these guns could keep them under the proposal. Would you support such a bill?

Polis: You know, Ryan, this is the one speech and the one week where I get to lay out my agenda. There are a hundred legislators and absolutely they each have their own agendas and there's going to be 500 bills, and I haven't seen any bills on the topic you're talking about, but obviously we'll look forward to looking at hundreds of bills as they come through the process. But this week what I laid out are the two most substantial, important steps that I feel we can take on gun safety to help make Colorado one of the 10 safest states.

Number one, we joined the call of Mayor Suthers, Mayor Coffin and Mayor Hancock, bipartisan mayors representing our three largest cities, to take action on ghost guns. These are unregistered, no serial number. They can be acquired by felons, sort of snap together in your garage with mail order parts. We have no current system to make them harder to attain in Colorado, nor any way of preventing criminals from acquiring them.

Number two, we talked about the Extreme Risk Protection Order, also called the Red Flag law. This is a way when somebody's having a mental health crisis, that you can temporarily remove custody of their firearms. They could be returned to them after their mental health crisis has ended.

Warner: You'd like district attorneys to be able to file for those.

Polis: Exactly. Currently it's limited to family members and law enforcement. We talked about expanding that to district attorneys. And we're happy to have a discussion about others that that should apply to. But this has been used hundreds of times. It has unquestionably reduced suicides in Colorado, and it absolutely is a powerful tool to reduce gun crimes going forward.

Warner: It is also very unevenly used. So whereas Denver has used it routinely, El Paso County where the Club Q shooting occurred, has not.

Polis: That's why this discussion of a broader group, so in the case of that shooting, you know, there was really one person, a mother that could have and didn't, and then law enforcement didn't want to. So who else should be able to, and I think at the very least, certainly the discussion of including district attorneys, potentially others, we want to make sure that when someone is having a mental health crisis, even if they happen to be in a different state or place in their family, that there is some way that access to weapons can be temporarily restricted until they recover.

Warner: But I guess the point is, you might be making it easier for those who like the Red Flag law to use it, and those who refuse to, I mean, sure you're broadening who might be able to do it, but we're just seeing that in certain jurisdictions, the Second Amendment concerns are simply too big for them to move forward.

Polis: Well, first of all, it's not automatic when it's issued. Just because you say in a petition that a court should remove access to weapons, that doesn't mean it's removed. The judge looks at that and examines that. So there's a process to ensure that, of course, we have the right to bear arms and you have the right to have a gun. But if you're having a temporary mental health crisis, there should be a legal way to temporarily remove access to their weapons. 

That might have potentially been a factor in the King Soopers shooting as an instance. It was an immigrant family. If there was a way that they were aware of this, I think many of them might have even identified that their son, brother, was having mental health issues. So we need to make sure that it's available and known, easy to access, and that the right set of people have the ability to apply when they see somebody experiencing mental health crisis and they might be a danger to themself or others.

Warner: I know that you'll be faced with any number of bills about firearms. There are conversations about increasing the minimum age, about a waiting period. I do want to go back to the idea of a so-called assault weapons ban. Plainly, regardless of what bills come to you, are there guns that are legal now that you think should not be?

Polis: Well, as you know, assault weapons, automatic weapons have been heavily restricted since 1986. You need a federal license, extensive background check. There are only about 10,000 or so in the state of Colorado, and I'm not aware of any recent gun crimes that an assault weapon or automatic weapon has been used in. When you look at other types of weapons, they're used by Coloradans for hunting, for home defense, for a variety of other purposes, for sport, and again, it's more about making sure that somebody with criminal intent or who's currently in a psychotic state or having a mental health crisis, is unable to access a weapon at that time.

And so that's why I'm proud that Colorado's universal background checks, I’m proud that we have an Extreme Risk Protection Order. Let's work to improve that, and let's find other ways to make sure that if somebody is a danger to themselves or others, that it's harder for them to acquire a weapon to engage in crime with.

Warner: So I hear you saying that you, so I haven't heard you name a weapon you think is legal now that should be illegal. Is that right?

Polis: We’ve talked about ghost weapons that are untraceable and have no serial number. It can be any kind of weapon. It could be one that you assemble in your home that could be semi-automatic. It may be a pistol. It may be a long gun. The problem is, these are easily put together, untraceable, and there's no background check in play. We're not talking gunsmiths here. We're talking about snapping together three mail order pieces to have a completed weapon that you had no background check for, even if you were a convicted felon on a gun crime and might not legally have the right to acquire that.

Warner: So that is your focus as opposed to other kinds of serial numbered guns.

Polis: Well, increasingly we're seeing ghost guns used in gun crime. And I think that if we don't get our arms around this and there's model policies in other states and there's new federal action on this too, we’ve got to find a way to prevent the genie from getting out of the bag on ghost guns because it threatens to undermine all the other gun safety measures that Colorado has, including universal background checks.

Warner: Let's talk more generally about crime. You congratulated indeed some local officials, specifically those mayors of Colorado's three biggest cities, for their work to reduce crime. And you said the state needed to, “step up and be a more constructive partner in their work.” So you back a series of proposals from these mayors, increasing penalties for car theft, tougher gun laws for repeat offenders who are car thieves or drug dealers. We've talked about the ghost guns. Anything else?

Polis: So I joined the mayors of our three largest cities, Republican and Democratic Mayor Coffin, Mayor Hancock, Mayor Suthers, in support of the measures that you indicated around cracking down on auto theft, investing in proven crime prevention strategies. What we also proposed are a couple other elements: more support for community organizations. And for law enforcement we highlighted the work of the Boys and Girls Clubs in Colorado. Twenty-one club sites in 15 counties, meaningful afterschool programming to help prevent kids from becoming justice involved. 

The need for supporting law enforcement recruitment and training, as well as, when we talked about our workforce package, we also added law enforcement to that. So if somebody aspires to a career in law enforcement, they can get the training that they need, if our package passes, for free, to be a good law enforcement officer, a public peace officer that is able to help play a constructive role in reducing crime in the state of Colorado and making us one of the 10 safest states.

Warner: Let's talk about migrants, asylum seekers. Thousands have recently come to Colorado, to Denver especially, and many have been served by Denver City resources. For a while, the state was busing some of these migrants to other cities, and the mayors protested. After a phone call with them, you announced the busing had stopped. You and those mayors called for a federal solution to this immigration reform. What makes you think that's more likely now than the several attempts, for instance, when you were in Congress?

Polis: First of all, we had a number of migrants in Colorado that were stuck here over the holidays. And we were very happy to be able to help them move on and get where they wanted to go. Working with nonprofits, we highlighted Papagayo, friends, a number of others that we worked with, and, really making sure that we had the right strategy in place to help migrants succeed.

You know, one of my staff members got a message from a migrant I met and who spent time with our staff after they left for Chicago. And they said, thanks to God, to you and the governor, I'm doing fine. It was an excellent trip. So it's not about playing politics with this. It’s really about, of course, how as a nation we can better address our broken immigration system. And it's a topic I'm happy to expound on at length.

In my speech today, we had several members of Congress there. We talked about pairing better border security with comprehensive immigration reform, including work permits for people who are already here. I still think that's a basic formula that we need at the national level. Secure the border and make sure that people who are here, especially people who are seeking asylum fleeing communist dictators like Maduro in Venezuela, are able to work legally. We have two job openings in our state for every unemployed person.

So if there was a faster route to work permits, and we've called on the federal government, the Biden administration, to do what's called temporary protected status, TPS, for Venezuelans, which they already did for Venezuelans that arrived before March 21, 2021. But do it again so people don't have to fight for a year or longer to finally get their asylum. And if they do expect local governments or states to put people up and support them for a year while they're fighting for asylum before they can work to support themselves, and by the way, they came here to support themselves. But if that's what the federal government is standing in the way of, then the very least they can do is help fund lodging and support for people who have pending asylum claims that'll take many months to be processed.

Warner: Are you more optimistic about this moment in time for immigration reform than those previous, when you witnessed it as a member of Congress?

Polis: It's a necessity, Ryan.

Warner: It was then too.

Polis: But I think it's a louder and more urgent necessity. Whether you're a Republican or Democrat, whether you're the left or right or center, I don't think you'll meet anybody who thinks that America's doing it right with regard to immigration and protecting our borders. And it's simply common sense. We're not. Democrats don't think we are, Republicans don't think we are, independents, don't think we are. 

And so we have to have and push a national discussion about how we can do this in a way that honors our value as a nation and helps reduce crime and make America safer.

Warner: But that sounds quaint in the face of the gridlock we see in Congress.

Polis: Well, let's get 'em together. I mean, I call on Speaker McCarthy, on Chuck Schumer, on President Biden, to not let the perfect be the enemy of the good and to get something done on securing our border and comprehensive immigration reform.

Warner: In your State of the State speech, you interestingly singled out hospitals, specifically nonprofit hospitals, whom you say have too much cash on hand and ought to cut the cost of healthcare. Presumably some of those hospitals also face uncompensated care when patients walk in the door who can't pay and don't have Medicaid, for instance. Are hospitals being asked to do too much?

Polis: The profit they're making is net. Any of those costs you talked about are provided uncompensated care. So when we say they're making a profit, even if it's nominally a nonprofit of hundreds of millions of dollars a year, that's after they've provided care to people that might not be compensated, which might be a few percent of the people that they provide care for. 

What we're talking about here is, why are you making such a big profit If you're a nonprofit? That means you're charging more than your costs. Simply slash your prices and charge less. Number two, to the extent that you are assembling hundreds of millions or billions of dollars of profit and reserve that you never pay taxes on, the tradeoff as you're supposed to use that money for community benefit. Let's make sure that we have oversight and accountability around the community benefit that's actually being provided.

Warner: What would that look like?

Polis: We want to make sure that, again, my first priority would be they stop overcharging people, but to the extent they're still accumulating large reserves and billions of dollars, let's see them as part of the solution around social determinants of health, like housing, child care, mental health, maternity care. These are areas that are urgent community needs in many parts of our state. And we'd love to see some of the profits from so-called nonprofits deployed in this regard, since they're not contributing to the public side through the taxes they pay.

Warner: What you have not done in this discussion is name any particular hospital. May I ask why? If there are, if there are known culprits that have you ticked off, say them?

Polis: Well, we have both nonprofit and for-profit hospitals in our state. And I'm certainly not defending for-profits and their pricing in any way, but what I am saying is at least they're paying taxes on their profits. So at least that goes back into the pot to help pay for health care, pay for housing, all the public goods. When you have large non-profits, they don't pay property taxes, they don't pay income taxes. They often don't pay sales or use taxes. So they're exempt from so many of those things and the trade off is they're supposed to supply public benefit and public good, but in many ways they're achieving profits that are levels that are higher than some of the for-profits. 

So what is a non-profit and what should we expect as consumers in Colorado in exchange for this favorable tax treatment are the kind of questions that we're trying to pursue with regard to making sure we can save people money on health care in our state.

Warner: I hear that you won't name a particular hospital at this point. Before we go, let's wrap up where we began, on housing, which you say is connected to the economy, to health, to climate, to water, and to transportation. You've spoken so often about the idea of density, housing density, and affordable housing near transit so that people don't necessarily face the costs of a car, for instance. But you have been reluctant to spend state money on, for instance, RTD, the Regional Transportation District in metro Denver. If the state is so high on the notion of density and affordable housing near transit, should it be making more concerted investments in transit agencies?

Polis: Well, I think we were really excited. In fact, we went to RTD with the concept of “Free Fare August” and after some debate, thankfully they agreed to have free fares. We would love to see them expand that even more.

Warner: That was with relief dollars.

Polis: That was with relief, but it doesn't expire. We don't have to consider that now; it's funded for the next year. The preliminary data shows that it increased ridership. It's something we should absolutely look at doing long term. So we have it funded for the next year. We'd like to expand that and we look forward to having that discussion. But look, we look forward to working with transportation districts across our state, around how we can make transit work as an option for people. 

But a lot of that comes down to housing and where people live. And it's a virtuous cycle to a certain extent. If you live near transit and more people have the opportunity, if they choose to, to live near transit, the more customer base the transit has and the more transit we can do and the lower cost that transit is. It’s having higher density and more people with the opportunity to live within walking distance of bus and rail, will also help benefit the opportunities to deliver more bus and rail service at a lower price.

Warner: I hear you saying that reshaping housing policy helps the bottom line of the transit agencies because it means more customers might use them.

Polis: It drives scale and reduces cost and it allows for increased frequency, which increases convenience to consumers.

Warner: Governor, thank you so much.

Polis: Thank you Ryan. Always a pleasure.