“Red flag” law for Colorado in the works, the last shot of getting gun control through both chambers this session

About 400 people with the group Moms Demand Action lobbied for gun control at the state Capitol on March 5, 2018. Democrats are considering more gun reforms in the 2020 session. (Photo by John Herrick)

Colorado lawmakers are mulling legislation that would allow police officers to temporarily remove guns from people suspected of being a threat to themselves or to others.

Details are yet to be finalized and the legislation is yet to be introduced, but discussions have been taking place behind the scenes on red flag legislation, also known as extreme risk protective orders or gun violence prevention orders. Democratic gubernatorial candidate and current Lt. Gov. Donna Lynne revealed that work was underway during Wednesday night’s 9News debate. Lynne said if lawmakers did not act, the Hickenlooper administration was considering stepping in. 

Gov. John Hickenlooper equivocated when reporters asked about the plan on Thursday during a news conference. 

“I think it’s prudent to see what they come up with,” Hickenlooper said. He added that the goal is to reach a collaborative compromise that protects civil rights and makes sure there is less risk to the community.

This type of law has gained national attention in the wake of the February school shooting in Parkland, Florida. The gunman, 19-year-old Nikolas Cruz, showed a pattern of warning signs before killing 17 people at Stoneman Douglas High School. Red flag laws, proponents say, might have stopped him. 

“Family members and law enforcement should have tools when they identify somebody who is at risk of hurting themselves or others to intervene and help prevent a tragedy,” Assistant Majority Leader Rep. Alec Garnett, a Denver Democrat who has been working on the legislation, told The Colorado Independent.

After the Stoneman Douglas shooting, Florida passed a red flag law. Seven other states — California, Connecticut, Oregon, Washinton, Indiana, Rhode Island and Vermont — have also passed red flag laws. This kind of legislation has been introduced in about a dozen state legislatures since the Parkland shooting, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Garnett said the proposed legislation would allow law enforcement officers to temporarily remove firearms from people considered to be a danger to themselves or others. He said it would also allow the gun owners to petition to get their guns back.  

He acknowledged that due process for gun owners is important. What that due process looks like will be key if any Republicans, many of whom are Second Amendment hardliners, let it pass through the Senate, which they control by a one-vote majority. Republicans this year have pushed legislation to loosen gun laws, including an attempted repeal of a 2013 law limiting the sale of high capacity magazines and lifting restrictions for concealed carry permit holders. These bills are destined to be voted down in the Democratic-controlled House.

Sen. Bob Gardner, a Republican from Colorado Springs who chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee, said he is open to the concept of a red flag law. But, he said, he wonders if the level of due process needed to get his approval would even be practical.

In the event that a police officer seeks to confiscate someone’s weapon, Gardner said, there would need to be an expeditious court hearing, which could prove difficult.

He said he doubts lawmakers will move such controversial legislation with the legislative session waning.

It’s also an election year, and in previous years, the Rocky Mountain Gun Owners, a gun rights group, has circulated letters opposing Democrats who voted for gun control bills.

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.

Senator Nancy Todd remembers the fallout: cars drove around the Capitol honking their horns. A plane flew over the Golden Dome carrying a banner that read “HICK: DO NOT TAKE OUR GUNS.” People walked around the statehouse wearing stickers that read “I Vote Pro-Gun.”

“The atmosphere, it was tense,” the Democrat from Aurora said.  

And 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.

Upset by the recall vote, Michael Merrifield ran for Morse’s seat in November 2014. He won. And this session, Merrifield introduced his own gun-control bill. It would have banned bump stocks, which are devices that enable rifles to fire like automatic weapons — the same attachment used by the Las Vegas shooter, who opened fire into a crowd of concert-goers killing 58 people last year.

Despite hundreds of K-12 students and moms who rallied at the Capitol for gun control, the bill went nowhere; the Senate State, Veterans and Military Affairs Committee voted against the bill 3-2 along party lines.

“I don’t think it’s over. I think the tide is shifting,” Merrifield told The Colorado Independent after the committee vote on March 19. “I think people are getting fed up.”

On Thursday, Moms Demand Action, a group advocating for stronger gun laws, walked around the Capitol cornering lawmakers and pitching red flag laws. One told The Colorado Independent that voters are going to start holding lawmakers accountable at the ballot box.

The discussion around gun laws has centered on school safety this year. Republicans said the answer is to allow guns in schools so teachers could defend themselves and other students if under attack. House Minority Leader Patrick Neville, who was a sophomore at Columbine High School in 1999, the year of the deadly shooting, this year again proposed a bill to allow concealed-carry permit holders to bring guns inside K-12 schools. That bill died in the Democratic-controlled House.

But a compromise on school safety measures was reached in the conference committee this week to spend $35 million on school security upgrades, such as door locks, and training for staff to help students.

Update: This story was updated on April 16 with more specific information about what state’s have enacted or considered red flag laws. 

About 400 people with the group Moms Demand Action lobbied for gun control at the state Capitol on March 5. Photo by John Herrick