Colorado may create a hotline to help with ‘red flag’ gun cases

Guns are displayed at Dragonman’s, an arms seller east of Colorado Springs, Colo.

State lawmakers could create an informational service to help people navigate the “red flag” process for requesting the removal of someone’s guns.

The state legislature has been debating a bill that makes broader changes to the state’s Extreme Risk Protection Order law. In recent weeks, Democrats amended the bill to include the creation of an ERPO hotline.

The amended bill includes about $240,000 for the hotline, which is expected to require about three full-time employees. It will provide callers “with information about filing for an order and about other relevant resources.”

The ERPO law allows judges to ban individuals from possessing guns for up to a year at a time — if the person is judged to be a risk to themselves or others. The process begins when someone files a court petition requesting the “red flag” order. 

If this year’s bill passes, those petitions could be filed by professionals such as district attorneys, educators, and medical and mental health providers, as well as police and individuals with close relations to the subject.

Meanwhile, the hotline would provide basic information about the process to individuals and others who might want to file a petition, but don’t know how to do it, said Rep. Jennifer Bacon, a Democratic sponsor of the bill.

“It wasn't necessarily intended to be a crisis response hotline,” Bacon told Colorado Matters. “We want people to know in the state that there is a resource to help them navigate how to access one and if they qualify to access one.”

The hotline wouldn’t necessarily be a freestanding phone number; instead, information could be provided through an existing service.

The hotline amendment — and its funding — were approved by the House but still must go through a vote in the Senate.

No legal advice

The hotline would not provide legal advice, nor would its staffers be able to file petitions on behalf of someone. Rep. Gabe Evans, a Republican, moved an amendment that explicitly bars operators from doing either of those things.

Rep. Bacon accepted that change. “If you are not an attorney, you can’t give legal advice,” she said. Instead, the hotline would point people in the right direction. For example, an individual might be told that they need to go to a particular court to file paperwork, or that they could ask specific local authorities for help.

“The hotline is to receive and refer,” she said. While operators could provide general information about the law, they wouldn’t weigh in on the merits of the individual case.

Bacon said the hotline was inspired by CPR News reporting. A recent investigative series included interviews with people who struggled to figure out the legal process for filing ERPO petitions.

“When mass shootings happen …  you hear from people who are saying, ‘We knew things are not right,’” said one woman who was threatened by her partner. But many people don’t know where or how to file the right paperwork, or who to ask for help, she said.

“A hotline could talk you through your options or to help refer you to a resource,” added the woman. CPR is withholding her name for her safety.

Republicans wanted to add another requirement for the hotline. They asked that operators be required to warn people that it’s illegal to file a false petition, reflecting their concerns about potential abuse of the law.

“Hopefully, this would push people from making false statements about people for political gain,” said Rep. Ryan Armagost, a Republican. 

“If it's a frivolous complaint, maybe that would cause them to just pause long enough,” said Rep. Ken DeGraaf, also a Republican.

Democrats rejected that amendment, saying that it strayed too close to providing legal advice. They preferred to provide those warnings about the consequences of false statements through more general public information campaigns about the law, they said.

Rep. Mike Weissman, a Democratic sponsor of the bill, pointed out that the court forms for filing an ERPO petition include explicit warnings about perjury.

“This confronts you literally in black and white on these forms with the reality that if you falsely swear you are going to be subject to a perjury charge,” he said.

Some Republicans eventually agreed to that argument, with Rep. Evans saying that ultimately local authorities should be the ones providing the detailed information and potentially assisting with the filing of a petition.

The red flag bill is about to clear the legislature

But overall objections to the “red flag” law remain. Many Republicans unilaterally oppose the idea that a civil court judge should have the power to make decisions about someone’s Second Amendment rights. 

“It is enshrined in the constitution because our Founders understood that the preservation of life often required its defense … its defense against one’s neighbor who might want to cause harm, its defense against one government or a superior power … that might want to cause harm,” said Republican Rep. Stephanie Luck.

Republicans have also warned about the abuse of the process — some people have been forced to respond to multiple apparently frivolous petitions, although judges rejected all such cases that CPR News identified.

Republicans also pointed to a case in Maryland where police shot a man as they tried to confiscate his guns — the first fatality directly related to nearly 500 red flag orders in the state, according to The Baltimore Sun.

Meanwhile, Democrats argue that red flags are a reasonable and temporary intervention to disarm a person in crisis, including multiple potential mass shooting cases. Judges are required to look for “clear and convincing evidence” before issuing a one-year order, and the orders can be appealed.