Proposed “red flag” law introduced with bipartisan support but dies in Senate along party lines
“I am sick and tired of law enforcement officers and citizens getting killed because we can’t intervene earlier,” says Sheriff David Walcher
This story was updated on May 8 to indicate that the bill died in the Senate State, Veterans and Military Affairs Committee.
State lawmakers introduced a proposed “red flag” gun law last week that would have allowed law enforcement to remove firearms from people suspected of being a threat to themselves or others.
It was the first gun safety measure that had a chance of passing both the Democratic-controlled House and the Republican-controlled Senate since lawmakers approved a controversial gun control package in 2013.
“Law-abiding guns owners have nothing to fear with this legislation,” said state Rep. Cole Wist, a Republican from Centennial who is backing the legislation.
Flanked by law enforcement officials, Rep. Alec Garnett said the bill would help protect officers. The Denver Democrat and assistant House Majority Leader has been working on the legislation behind the scenes for months.
“(The bill) would give law enforcement officers across the state a vital tool to intervene before a tragedy occurs and does so in a way that limits the risk to law enforcement officers in the field,” Garnett, the son of former Boulder District Attorney Stan Garnett, told reporters and supporters gathered in the west foyer Monday morning.
Despite bipartisan sponsorship in the House, the bill was killed in the Republican-controlled Senate State, Veterans and Military Affairs Committee on a 3-2 party-line vote on Monday.
The bill allowed family, roommates and law enforcement officers to ask a judge for a so-called extreme risk protective order, or ERPO, to remove guns from someone who is suspected of acting violently. After seven days, the gun owner would be able to petition the court to get their guns back.
The bill was named in honor of Sheriff’s Deputy Zackari Parrish, 29, who was ambushed and killed in the Denver suburb of Highlands Ranch on New Year’s Eve by Matthew Riehl, an Army veteran and former Wyoming lawyer who had a history of mental illness. Proponents of the bill say it would have saved Parrish’s life.
“We had petitioned a number of instances to try to get this individual some mental health care, hospitalized or some kind of care or treatment,” Douglas County Sheriff Tony Spurlock said of Riehl. “And on New Year’s Eve… Deputy Zack Parrish lost his life and four of my deputies were shot and injured.”
“Why do we have to wait until something happens before law enforcement can take action?” added Arapahoe County Sheriff David Walcher. “I am sick and tired of law enforcement officers and citizens getting killed because we can’t intervene earlier.”
The bill was about suicide prevention, not gun control, said Andrew Romanoff, executive director of Mental Health Colorado, who said he lost his first cousin to suicide three years ago. Colorado has one of the highest suicide rates in the country, he noted, and many use firearms to kill themselves. This bill, he told the crowd, may help make a dent in that number
“People are dying every day,” Romanoff said. “Let’s act.”
The proposed legislation allowed judges to consider relevant mental health issues and request a mental health evaluation when deciding whether to grant a protective order.
The chief concern among Republicans has been due process for gun owners.
George Brauchler, the 18th Judicial District Attorney and Republican candidate for attorney general, said there are about 30 pages of due process in the bill. (The bill is 30 pages in total.)
“There is potential for this to be abused,” he said. “But skepticism is not a justification for inaction.”
The person seeking to have someone’s guns removed would have had to prove that the gun owner is a threat using a relatively low burden of proof — the “preponderance-of-evidence” standard. But they’d have to meet a higher burden of proof — “clear and convincing” evidence — in court if the gun owner petitions to get their guns back.
The protective order could remain in place for 182 days after the court hearing. During that time, the gun owner in question would be barred from buying any guns. They could, however, petition a court to have the order lifted.
Eight states — California, Connecticut, Florida Oregon, Washington, Indiana, Rhode Island and Vermont — have passed “red flag” laws. This kind of legislation has been introduced in about a dozen state legislatures since the school shooting in Parkland, Fla., according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
House Minority Leader Patrick Neville, a Republican from Castle Rock, said during a floor debate that the most difficult order he received as a U.S. Army officer was to take away the guns of another officer who was rapped and suspected of being suicidal.
“Here she was — brutally raped — and I’m being sent in to take away her one form of protection that made her feel safe,” Neville told an unusually quiet House chamber.
In 2013, the year after the mass shootings at the theater in Aurora and at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., Colorado lawmakers passed a bill limiting ammunition magazines to 15 rounds and another requiring universal background checks. Later that year, a recall was held. Senate President John Morse, a Democrat, was ousted. So was Sen. Angela Giron, a Pueblo Democrat. Sen. Evie Hudak, a Westminster Democrat, stepped down to enable a Democrat to replace her.
Rocky Mountain Gun Owners, a gun-rights political group, attacked supporters of the proposed red flag law on Facebook, calling on Douglas County gun rights activists to help volunteer and urging followers to call Wist to oppose the legislation, which they dubbed the red flag “Gun Confiscation Bill.”
The House GOP caucus held a meeting late Monday night last week where they talked about a motion to remove Wist, who is the assistant minority leader, from his leadership position over his support to the proposed red flag law. No vote was taken.
Photo: Rep. Cole Wist, a Republican from Centennial, Rep. Alec Garnett, a Democrat from Denver, were flanked by law enforcement officials when they introduced a proposed red flag law on Monday. Photo by John Herrick.
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