Colorado looks at law allowing police to take guns from people deemed too dangerous
ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
Colorado is taking a hard look at its so-called red flag law, which allows police to take guns away from people deemed too dangerous to have them. This, after the November Club Q shooting, which killed five people and wounded 17 others. The suspected shooter had been arrested a year earlier for threatening behavior, but the red flag law was not applied. Colorado Public Radio's Andrew Kenney looked at the hundreds of times the law has been used there and why it's not used more often.
ANDREW KENNEY, BYLINE: The nation's first red flag law passed more than 20 years ago in Connecticut after a mass shooting at a government office. Since then, 18 other states and Washington, D.C. have passed similar laws, often in response to their own tragedies. Colorado's came in 2019 after a man with a troubled history killed a sheriff's deputy at Douglas County. Then-Sheriff Tony Spurlock testified for the law.
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TONY SPURLOCK: People tend to look away. Don't do that anymore, Colorado. Focus on those people. Those people need our help. And we have the opportunity to save lives.
KENNEY: The law allows police to take guns from people deemed too dangerous to have them and prevent them from buying more, if a judge agrees. But it doesn't always work how advocates hoped. This woman in the Denver area tried to use it when her ex allegedly threatened himself and her. We're not identifying her at her request to protect her safety.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: So I went to Lakewood Police, and then they told me that they could do a wellness check.
KENNEY: An officer didn't think there was enough evidence to press for a red-flag order, even though the woman had a video of the man pointing a rifle at himself.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: And I said, well, if you do a wellness check, he's going to know that I call the police. And then she was like, well, at this point, we've done all that we can do. Best of luck.
KENNEY: But Lakewood Police told her she could still go to a judge herself and ask for red-flag protection. As a conservative, she had doubts about using the law, but she saw no other choice.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: And at that point, I was like, I'll just go to the courthouse.
KENNEY: But there's a big difference. Citizen requests for red-flag protection only succeed about 20% of the time, compared to more than 80% for police requests. The woman says it was a struggle to even file the paperwork in the right place.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: I did get emotional in that. And I said, you know, are you going to be at the funeral, like, apologizing to my kids? Because at this point, I've been dealing with it for a week, and I'm trying to figure it out.
KENNEY: She did figure it out and eventually got a one-year red flag order. But she wishes she'd had more help.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: So it was just very, very lonely.
KENNEY: Lakewood Police said while they didn't pursue this case, they have embraced the law. We found they filed at least nine red-flag petitions, more than almost any other agency in Colorado. Commander Jon Alesch.
JON ALESCH: The community decided after the tragedy, this was a necessary tool. That's one reason we take it very seriously.
KENNEY: In contrast, most Colorado police departments have never used the law. Police agencies in El Paso County have filed just two requests, compared to about 90 from Denver, which has a similar population. After the Club Q shooting, El Paso County authorities said they'd had specific reasons not to use the law earlier, despite the suspect's previous threats. But they've also objected to the law itself on Second Amendment grounds.
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BILL ELDER: I really want to solve the problem of mental health, but I don't want to do it with an unconstitutional law.
KENNEY: That's former El Paso County Sheriff Bill Elder back in 2019, when dozens of conservative counties declared themselves as Second Amendment sanctuaries, protesting limiting gun rights for people who may not have been charged with a crime.
ELDER: And frankly, there are a huge number of police chiefs, mayors, city councils that are in the same exact boat.
KENNEY: A woman in one rural county was told the sheriff there avoids using the law because...
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Because it's taking away their freedom - their freedom to their Second Amendment.
KENNEY: She, too, asked for anonymity because she fears the man in the case, who was allowed to keep his guns.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: And it's just, you know, prioritizing one over the other, like, the freedom to feeling safe or knowing your community's safe or the freedom to your gun.
KENNEY: Colorado lawmakers are debating potential changes to the law, like allowing district attorneys to start the red flag process too. That would give people one more place to ask for help. For NPR News, I'm Andrew Kenney.
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