Among those who welcomed President Trump’s recent call for red flag laws was his fellow Republican Tony Spurlock, the sheriff of Douglas County.
Spurlock has been one of the strongest backers of Colorado’s version of the law, which goes into effect in January. It allows for the temporary seizure of firearms from gun owners who law enforcement or family members can show is an imminent threat to themselves and others. The court order — called an emergency risk protection order — prevents the individual from “possessing, controlling, purchasing, or receiving a firearm.” If the gun owner wants the weapons back before the order expires, he or she must prove they are no longer a “significant risk.”
Spurlock cuts a dramatic figure — a conservative, pull-no-punches, mustachioed lawman bucking his own party and many of his fellow county sheriffs to align with Democrats in the Colorado state legislature.
Colorado’s sheriffs, particularly those in conservative counties, have criticized the law as unconstitutional, and roughly two dozen of them or their county commissions have declared their counties Second Amendment sanctuaries in protest of its passage.
Weld County Sheriff Steve Reams — as outspoken in his criticism as Spurlock is in his support — is typical of the opposition. Reams says the law is a government overreach that violates constitutionally protected due process. Among the many unresolved questions, Reams says, is “we haven’t been given a definition of what ‘significant risk’ means. That is a very subjective term. [And] we have still done nothing to address mental health in our communities, nothing substantive … In other words, they found a solution that doesn’t fix the problem. It’s poorly aimed at best.”
Spurlock’s own county commission rebuked him with a resolution that pledged to “only fund the enforcement of duly enacted state laws that include the rights to due process, bear arms and defense from evil.” Spurlock promptly pronounced the resolution a form of “extortion.”
Meanwhile, a committee formed to launch a recall of the sheriff, who was first elected in 2015 and then reelected last November. A Facebook page supporting the recall argues that Spurlock’s support of the red flag law has “injured the constitution irreparably.”
The president’s call for red flag laws (as well as expanded background checks) came in the aftermath of the recent El Paso, Texas and Dayton, Ohio shootings, which left a combined 31 people dead. The Colorado Independent spoke to Spurlock several times over the summer and again after the president’s comments on the need for laws that allow for the seizure “through rapid due process” of firearms from those who “pose a grave risk to public safety.”
Spurlock lauds the president for his comments, adding that it is possible to pass “reasonable and responsible gun laws that would make people’s lives safer.”
The following question and answer comes out of The Indy’s conversations with Spurlock. It has been edited for clarity and brevity.
Why do you support Colorado’s red flag law?
So, I didn’t just fall off the turnip truck. I have been doing this for 39 years. But [this is] what has built up over the years:
In September of 2016, there was an individual who we knew had a mental health issue, who we knew had a drug addiction issue, who we knew had a violence issue, who we knew had guns. We knew (he) had all these things, but we were unable to intervene. His family was unable to intervene. And then, finally, the family calls and says ‘We need your help. Please come.’ And my deputies go to the house and this person ends up shooting [Deputy] Dan Brite, paralyzing him for life and putting the entire Parker Adventist Hospital in danger by driving through [nearby] fields shooting an AK-47. And my officers, in the act of defending themselves, take [this man’s] life.
Fast-forward six months to a mom who everyone in the family knew was desperately in need of some mental health care. Didn’t have any way to deal. Didn’t know where to go. Didn’t have anywhere to turn. There was no avenue to restrict her from buying a gun. And on a Wednesday she goes and buys a gun at Cabela’s and on a Thursday she takes her children and medicates them and shoots both of them in the head and then shoots herself.
Then, a few months later, we have a mom having the exact same mental health issues with a family. Everybody knows she’s got mental issues. Nobody knows which way to turn. There’s no system to go to and she does the exact same thing: kills her daughter, kills herself. A young man who is distraught — the family knows he is distraught, the family is trying to do whatever they can to get him some help and some care, but there’s no system in place to prevent him from access to guns. Gets a gun and goes in and shoots his mother, tries to shoot his sister and then takes his own life.
And then we fast-forward to New Year’s Eve, 2017, where an individual we had been dealing with for three months — who had been medically hospitalized, who had been declared to be having mental health issues — was in possession of guns. We tried to get orders against him and we went to the court and we went to the DA’s office and we went to the system and nothing was there. His family went to the system and was forced to give his guns back to him. He has a disturbance, calls us to his house, ambushes my deputies, kills [Deputy] Zack Parrish and shoots four others.
I think I have earned the right to have this opinion and to be this passionate about saving people’s lives because those lives could have been saved. And I’m not going to even talk to you about the suicides.
Did the cumulation of all these incidents lead you to go to lawmakers to propose red flag legislation or did they come to you?
So, lawmakers, [in the wake of Parrish’s death and others] came to [Boulder County Sheriff] Joe Pelle and me and wanted to do something, predominantly because we had the name recognition in the metro area. And the very first time [we crafted the legislation in April of 2018] we had lots of people, both Republicans and Democrats, sitting at the table trying to find the very best bill. It passes the House, dies in the Senate. And then as the politics changed, [lawmakers] reached back out to me this year and said ‘Do you still support it?’ And I said ‘yes I do.’ Of course, you know what happened then. [The bill passed and will become law on January 1, 2020].
And nothing you have heard in the debate has you rethinking your position?
I’m not going to change my support of this. There’s no reason to change my support. The common-sense reasonable people agree that mentally ill people shouldn’t have guns. The President of the United States said it in a number of speeches. The NRA has said there is a way that the Second Amendment and mental health issues can co-exist. So I’m not the only guy, I’m just a guy that has stood up and said ‘Wait a minute. There’s got to be another solution. And we can work a way through this.’
What is your response to county commissioners and sheriffs opposing the red flag law and declaring their counties Second Amendment sanctuaries?
What does having a Second Amendment Sanctuary county or city even mean? My question to them is: ‘Does that mean that felons who have been convicted of felonies, sex offenders, those who are on existing restraining order violations, do they get to carry guns now because they are in a Second Amendment county? Do you, just yourself, this commission, this whoever, get to decide who can carry a gun and who can’t?
‘Why don’t you just have the intestinal fortitude to step forward and say listen, we believe that mentally ill people should carry guns.’ Because, to me, that’s what they are saying. That is why I am so frustrated by this. Because this isn’t a gun deal. Everyone wants to make it a gun deal because otherwise the true story, the difficult story, is that extremely mentally ill people take [other people’s] lives and they take their own lives and they do it by the use of that tool. And if we can take that tool away from them, the probability of them doing that is diminished significantly. So why would we not want to save lives?
No one wants to talk about saving lives, they just want to talk about ‘well it’s unconstitutional.’ No, it’s not. It is not unconstitutional. Secondly, they don’t even want to get to the root of the issue and that is mental health. So, I get very frustrated when I hear a lot of people say ‘Well it’s a Second Amendment county.’ Again, tell me what that means. I asked my board of county commissioners: ‘What does it mean to you guys, what are you doing? Because it sounds to me like you’re saying that everybody gets to carry a gun.’ The Second Amendment doesn’t mean that everyone gets to carry guns. It’s regulated.
[Under red flag,] guns are going to be taken away from people who meet the criteria. There are 12 criteria [page 9 of the bill] that a judge has to meet before they give an emergency risk protection order and issue a search warrant for someone to have their guns temporarily removed. That is extensive. This whole conversation about ‘there’s no due process,’ there is an extensive due process because [deputies] have to go in front of a judge just like anything else.
What has the conversation around the bill been like so far?
I get emails 10-to-1 supporting me on this, I get phone calls 10-to-1 supporting me on this. I meet people on the street, I meet people at events all over Douglas County and they support me 10-to-1 on this because it is reasonable and responsible gun ownership. I get Republicans (and) Democrats alike that are gun owners that say ‘yeah we support this 100%. This is appropriate. And we support you, sheriff.’
What are you hearing from your deputies about the procedure and how are you advising them before the law kicks in in January?
We are in the final draft mode. As a matter of fact, I reviewed it this morning and made some adjustments. It is being reviewed now by our committee and I hope by the first of next week we will have our policy ready to be posted and implemented.
What will happen then is that we will have training on it with our deputies on ‘this is the policy, this is how you implement the process.’ It walks the deputy right through it. It’s a pretty easy process policy-wise to walk a deputy through if they came across something that might meet the … standard.
What are your thoughts on the recall effort against you?
They’re extremists, in my mind. And one of them just doesn’t like me and I don’t like him.
I am really paying no attention to it. I believe I have the support of the community and I am moving forward.
They haven’t done anything to move (forward). They are making statements that they are going to move in the fall or something. If they do I will mount a campaign and we will defeat it.
How do you think this bill would affect your day-to-day work in Douglas County? How often do you think you would have to use this procedure?
Very rarely. This is a tool we will use if we come across someone that meets that criteria. My [Community Response Team] last year responded to 1,000 calls for service that were mental health calls. My experts told me that [of those thousand] there were only 2 people that would have met the criteria. In those two cases, they took the individual into temporary custody, sent them to the hospital [using the Colorado emergency mental health hold procedure] and those individuals were released within 24 hours.
Anything else you would like to add?
I’ve seen the carnage, I’ve seen the deaths, I’ve seen the damage that occurs and (that) this causes. And why wouldn’t we try to save someone’s life? Why wouldn’t we say ‘boy this doesn’t seem right?’ And, yeah, the Republicans are saying it’s a creeping law from the Democrats, and the Democrats are saying we should use it to take guns away from everybody.
But I have asked everybody this: ‘In a reasonable and responsible perspective, should an individual who cannot control himself and is a danger to himself or others, should (they) have access to a gun while they are in that state?’ No one with common sense would say yes. No one.
Cullen Lobe contributed to this story.