Dolores County Sheriff Don Wilson didn’t expect to use Colorado’s red flag law when it was passed in 2019. He thought the law made it too easy to remove a person’s guns.
The law allows law enforcement officers or individuals to petition a county court to temporarily confiscate firearms from people who pose an imminent threat to themselves or others.
“It’s just one person’s word against another,” said Wilson, whose sparsely populated territory is in southwestern Colorado near the Utah border.
Then, in August 2020, a Dove Creek man threatening to kill himself and his neighbors pointed a semi-automatic rifle at a deputy. Wilson applied for and was granted an extreme risk protection order to remove the man’s weapons, although the sheriff said his distrust of the red flag law had not changed.
“If a gentleman pulls a gun on my deputy and then comes and threatens to shoot my courthouse and kill me, kill the judges and kill the district attorney,” Wilson said, “I have a problem with this person who has a gun.”
The shooting at a school in Uvalde, Texas, prompted a bipartisan gun control agreement in Congress that could provide funds to encourage more states to pass red flag laws. But in response to conservative objections, the bill passed by Congress included crisis response funding to states whether or not they establish red flag laws.
Similar opposition has been seen in Colorado, where Dolores County and at least 36 other counties declared themselves “Second Amendment sanctuaries” after the introduction of the Red Flag Act.
But 2.5 years later, these statements appear to have had little effect on the filing or enforcement of protection orders based on the law. Petitions for protective orders have been filed in 20 of the 37 sanctuary counties, often by the same sheriffs who previously spoke out against the law, according to a KHN analysis of petitions obtained through county-by-county public records requests.
“It was sheriffs and law enforcement originally saying, ‘We don’t want anything to do with this law,'” said Lisa Geller, State Affairs Advisor for the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Violence Solutions. “But in practice, they’re using it, and it’s not something unique to Colorado. Law enforcement has come to realize, ‘Hey, this is the best tool we have to protect ourselves.'”
Nineteen states and Washington, D.C. have implemented some form of red flag law while, according to the website SanctuaryCounties.com, more than 62% of US counties are now covered by Second Amendment sanctuary resolutions states or counties.
Research shows that red flag laws save lives. duke university the researchers found that for every 10 withdrawals of firearms, one death is avoided. Analysis from the University of Indianapolis found similar reductions in suicide rates after passing red flag laws in Connecticut and Indiana.
Another analysisby researchers from the Center for Injury and Violence Prevention at the Colorado School of Public Health, found that in the first year of Colorado’s Red Flag law, 85% of protective orders granted by judges had been filed by the police.
“It’s largely because law enforcement requests were perhaps more comprehensive,” Dr. Marianne Betz, epidemiologist and deputy director of the center. “They had the information the judges needed to move forward.”
Studies in California, Oregonand washington state also found that the majority of requests are filed by law enforcement. Although California’s red flag law has been in effect for more than five years, two-thirds of Californians in a 2020 survey had never heard of it.
Betz and his team encountered the same hurdle in Colorado. “I hope there will be some improvement in awareness and education, both for the public and for law enforcement,” she said, “so that it is easier for people to understand how they work and when you might want to get one and how you would do that.”
In Colorado counties where sheriffs have refused to use the red flag law, protective orders have been filed by other law enforcement agencies. Weld County Sheriff Steve Reams has been one of the law’s most vocal critics and has made national news saying he’d rather go to jail than enforce it. Nonetheless, 12 petitions have been filed in Weld County, including two by municipal police departments.
“My position is still the same,” Reams said. “Under no circumstances am I going to take up arms from someone in violation of their constitutional rights.”
Reams describes the law as “superficial” and does nothing to address mental issues that could contribute to the violence. “Our goal is to reach out to the person and try to figure out how to get them the help they need,” he said.
The process for citizens to file applications for extreme risk protection orders can be difficult. Many of those reviewed by KHN showed filers misunderstanding the red flag law, including a petition that was filed in the wrong county.
Other petitions filed by citizens were clearly outside the intent of the law.
Prisoners in county jails filed motions against their sheriff’s jailers, including one who accused the sheriff of slavery. A woman from Larimer County falsely claimed she had a child in common with a police officer in an effort to have her weapons taken away.
But the judges denied all of those motions, bolstering supporters’ argument that protections against abuse are enshrined in law.
“We’ve documented the rare cases of people abusing the law, but those petitions weren’t allowed,” said Betz, the Colorado epidemiologist. “It shows that the system worked.”
During debate on the Colorado bill, opponents argued that the law would allow vindictive people to take guns away from others for no good reason.
“We really don’t see that,” Boulder County Sheriff Joe Pelle said. “What we’re seeing is that law enforcement has a tool to use in cases where someone really poses a risk to themselves or others and shouldn’t have a gun. .”
Even before the Colorado law was passed in 2019, the Alamosa County Board of Commissioners passed a Second Amendment sanctuary resolution reinforcing the county’s commitment to the right to bear arms. Subsequently, Sheriff Robert Jackson issued a statement in support of the resolution, saying the red flag bill lacked due process, did not address mental health issues and would put his deputies at risk. increased.
Since then, Alamosa County judges have granted two motions under the statute, one from the county sheriff’s office and the other from the Alamosa Police Department.
Jackson said his concern is about the ability of private citizens to seek protective orders. Law enforcement, he said, only file cases after reviewing the facts.
“Judges sometimes aren’t really good at investigating things,” he said.
Douglas County Sheriff Tony Spurlock, one of Colorado’s most vocal supporters of the law, said his office filed four protective orders in the law’s first year.
“A lot of the time when we have people who have extreme mental health crises, unfortunately, there’s a suicide or a homicide,” he said. “The four cases we have handled, these four people are alive today and are contributing members of our society and working for healthier lives.”
Spurlock said many sheriffs are still refusing to enforce a law that has saved lives. He said he asked some of them pointed questions about what it means to be a Second Amendment sanctuary, such as whether armed robbers and rapists are entitled to guns.
“Then they get mad at me,” Spurlock said. “My number of friends is decreasing.”
KHN reporter Jacob Owens contributed to this article.
This article was taken from khn.org courtesy of the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation. Kaiser Health News, an editorially independent news service, is a program of the Kaiser Family Foundation, a nonpartisan health policy research organization not affiliated with Kaiser Permanente.