Dolores County Sheriff Don Wilson never expected the Colorado Red Flag Act to be used when it was passed in 2019. He thought the law made it much easier for a person to snatch a gun.
The statute allows law enforcement officers or private citizens to appeal to a county court to temporarily confiscate firearms from people who pose an imminent threat to themselves or others.
“It’s just one man’s talk against the other,” said Wilson, whose less populous area is in southwestern Colorado, near the Utah border.
Then, in August 2020, a Dove Creek man threatened to kill his neighbors and himself pointed a semi-automatic rifle at a deputy. Wilson appealed and was ordered an extreme risk protection order to remove the man’s weapon, although the sheriff said his disbelief in the red flag law had not changed.
“If a gentleman pulls a rifle at my deputy and shoots him in my court and threatens to kill me, kill the judges and kill the district attorney,” Wilson said, “the person with whom I have a gun.”
In Uvalade, Texas, the school shooting prompted a bipartisan gun control deal at Congress that could provide funding to encourage more states to pass red flag laws. But in response to conservative objections, the bill passed by Congress included funding for states to intervene in the crisis, whether or not to establish red flag laws.
Similar opposition has been seen in Colorado, where Dolores County and at least 36 other counties have declared themselves “Second Amendment sanctuaries” after the red flag law was introduced.
But 27 years later, these announcements seem to have had little effect on whether the protection order was filed or enforced based on the law. According to KHN analysis of petitions received through requests for county-by-county public records, petitions for protection orders have been filed in 20 of the 37 sanctuary counties, often by very sheriffs who previously denied the law.
“These are sheriffs and law enforcers who basically said, ‘We don’t want to do anything with this law,'” said Lisa Geller, state affairs adviser at the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Violence Solutions. Unique for Colorado. Law enforcement has realized, ‘Hey, this is the best tool we have to protect ourselves.’
Nineteen states and Washington, D.C., have enacted some sort of red flag law while, according to the website SanctuaryCounties.com, more than 62% of U.S. counties are now covered by state or county Second Amendment sanctuary resolutions.
Research shows red flag laws save lives. Researchers at Duke University have found that one death is prevented for every 10 guns removed. An analysis by Indianapolis University found a similar decline in suicide rates after Connecticut and Indiana passed the Red Flag Act.
Another analysis by researchers at the Center for Injury and Violence Prevention at the Colorado School of Public Health found that in the first year of the Colorado Red Flag Act, 85% of protection orders issued by judges were filed by law enforcement.
“A lot of this is because law enforcement petitions can be more complete,” said Dr. Marian Betz, an epidemiologist and deputy director of the center. “They had the information the judges needed to move forward with it.”
Studies in the states of California, Oregon and Washington have found that most petitions 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 the 2020 survey did not hear it.
Betz and his team found the same obstacle in Colorado. “I hope there will be some improvement in awareness and education for both the public and law enforcement,” he said, “making it easier to understand how people work and when you want to get one and how you want to do it.”
In Colorado County where sheriffs have refused to use the red flag law, protection orders have been filed by other law enforcement agencies. Weld County Sheriff Steve Reims is one of the most vocal critics of the law and has created national news that he wants to go to jail rather than enforce it. Nevertheless, 12 petitions have been filed in Weld County, including two municipal police departments.
“My position is still the same,” Reims says. “Under no circumstances am I going to take someone’s gun in violation of their constitutional rights.”
Reams describes the law as “shallow” and is doing nothing to address the psychological issues that could contribute to the violence. “Our goal is to address that person and try to figure out how to get that person the help they need,” he said.
The process of filing a petition for an extreme risk protection order for citizens can be challenging. Many of those who reviewed KHN showed that the filers did not understand the red flag law, including a petition that was filed in the wrong county.
Other petitions filed by citizens were clearly outside the purview of the law.
County jail inmates filed petitions against their sheriff jailers, one of whom accused the sheriff of slavery. A woman in Larimar County falsely claimed she had a baby match with a police officer for snatching her gun.
But the judges rejected all those petitions, strengthening the argument of the proponents that protection against abuse has been created in the law.
“We’ve documented a few rare cases of abuse of the law, but those requests haven’t been granted,” said Colorado epidemiologist Betz. “This shows that the system worked.”
During the debate over the Colorado Bill, opponents argued that the law would allow vindictive individuals to snatch guns from others without a valid reason.
“We don’t really see it,” said Boulder County Sheriff Joe Pel. “What we’re seeing is that law enforcement has a tool to use in cases where someone is really at risk for themselves or others and shouldn’t have a firearm.”
Even before the Colorado Act was passed in 2019, the board of County Commissioners of Alamosa County passed a Second Amendment sanctuary proposal strengthening the county’s commitment to the right to bear arms. Later, Sheriff Robert Jackson issued a statement in support of the resolution, saying the red flag bill lacked proper process, did not address mental health concerns and would put his deputies at increased risk.
Since then, Alamosa County judges have granted two applications under the law, one from the county sheriff’s office and one from the Alamosa Police Department.
Jackson said his concern was with the ability of private citizens to file for protection orders. He said that the law enforcement agencies file the case after investigating the incident.
“Judges sometimes don’t really investigate things,” he said.
Douglas County Sheriff Tony Sparlock, one of Colorado’s most outspoken advocates, said his office filed four protective orders in its first year of law.
“Most of the time when we have people who have an extreme mental health crisis, unfortunately, it results in suicide or murder,” he said. “Of the four cases we have filed, all four are alive today and are productive members of our society and working towards a healthier life.”
Sparlock said many sheriffs still refuse to use life-saving laws. He says he asked some of them questions about what it meant to be a Second Amendment sanctuary, such as whether armed robbers and rapists were entitled to guns.
“Then they get angry at me,” Sparlock said. “The number of my friends is dwindling.”
KHN reporter Jacob Owens contributed to this article.
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