Nikolas Cruz, the high-school shooter in Parkland, Fla., who killed 17 on Valentine’s Day, 2018, had a history of anger issues, including one third-hand report of a specific threat to shoot up his school.
Three months before the Parkland shooting, a cousin of his recently deceased adoptive mother recommended to the Broward County Sheriff’s Office that Cruz’s collection of guns be taken from him.
Adam Lanza, who killed 26, 20 of them children, at Sandy Hook Elementary School on Dec. 14, 2012, had a history of mental problems that went largely untreated, according to a report commissioned by the state of Connecticut after the tragedy. Medical experts at Yale University had called for drastic measures to help Lanza, according to the report, but that call “went largely unheeded” by his mother, whom he killed prior to his rampage at the elementary school.
James Holmes, who killed 12 and wounded another 70 in the Aurora theater shooting on July 20, 2012, told a psychiatrist in March of that year that he had “homicidal thoughts” as often as three or four times a day. The psychiatrist, Dr. Lynne Fenton, testified at Holmes’ trial that there was little she could do under existing law because Holmes was never specific about his intentions.
Would any of these mass shootings have been prevented by a “red flag” law, which allows judges to order the temporary seizure of guns from those deemed a risk to themselves or others? In the case of Sandy Hook, we know it did not, because Connecticut was the first state to pass a red flag law, in 1999. But the number of states with such laws has more than doubled since the Parkland massacre, which looks like a textbook case for such preventative measures.
For the second year in a row, a red flag bill is working its way through the Colorado legislature. Because both houses are now controlled by Democrats, this year’s version has a much better chance of becoming law than last year’s, when Republicans controlled the Senate and killed it in committee.
For the Colorado GOP, it might be time to consider a strategic question. Several prominent Republicans, including Arapahoe County District Attorney George Brauchler, supported last year’s bill and oppose this year’s. In fact, Cole Wist, a Republican state representative from Arapahoe County who was defeated in his bid for re-election in the 2018 Democratic Party wave, sponsored last year’s bill and opposes this year’s.
They cite a couple of differences between the two bills. First, the duration of an “extreme risk protection order” is extended from 182 days in last year’s version to 364 in this year’s. Second, the burden of proof was on those seeking the protective order throughout the process in last year’s bill.
In this year’s, the burden is on those seeking the order — a family or household member or a law enforcement officer — in the first instance, but once the order is granted, it switches to the target on appeal.
So, because Senate Republicans killed last year’s bill, it looks like they’re going to get this year’s version, which they like even less. This is not the only area in which Republicans are looking at passage of more extreme versions of bills they killed when they controlled the Senate. This might suggest that compromise is a better strategy than stonewalling, although, granted, that suggestion would be spitting into the wind in today’s partisan climate.
Their opposition to a red flag law is even more striking in light of a Magellan Strategies poll of Colorado Republicans earlier this year. It showed 90 percent approve of Donald Trump’s performance as president. It showed 88 percent support a wall between the U.S. and Mexico. And it showed 60 percent support a red flag law.
It’s also striking because the single most vocal supporter of a red flag law in Colorado is the Republican sheriff of Douglas County, Tony Spurlock, who lost a deputy, Zackari Parrish, to a shooting by a man in mental health crisis on New Year’s Eve, 2017.
Now that Democrats own the bill, Republicans are fleeing as a kind of reflex. Maybe it’s the changes in the bill and maybe it’s just partisan politics as usual. It is a truism of GOP politics that you can’t go wrong siding with the National Rifle Association. But the treatment of Spurlock, a career law enforcement officer trying to keep his deputies from getting shot, has been reprehensible.
The Douglas County GOP executive committee passed a resolution expressing “profound disappointment and disgust with Sheriff Tony Spurlock.” Really? A dedicated law enforcement officer with 38 years of experience, whose anguish was palpable after losing a 29-year-old deputy, is now trying to make sure that scenario doesn’t repeat itself. And that makes him subject to disappointment and disgust from the law-and-order party?
Not to be outdone, the Douglas County commissioners passed a resolution allying themselves with the nascent Second Amendment sanctuary movement. It included this line: “The Board of County Commissioners will fund the enforcement of only those duly enacted state laws that fully respect and support the constitutional rights of our citizens, including their rights to due process, to bear arms, and to defend themselves from evil.”
Due process, Fourteenth Amendment, check. Bear arms, Second Amendment, check. Defend themselves from evil? Hmm. That’s a constitutional right? Are you sure you’re not mixing it up with the Lord’s Prayer? Isn’t there something in the Constitution about that?
The message from these folks is we can’t do anything about gun violence in civilian society because they really, really, like guns. That’s irrational. Of course we have a right, as members of a democratic society, to decide that mentally disturbed people shouldn’t have access to firearms.
How best to do it is a subject worthy of debate. And conservatives have a point when they note that liberals, once the champions of due process, now too often seem willing to subordinate it to their social justice goals, just as free speech seems to mean less to many liberals on college campuses now that they control the message.
In this case, the due process argument is more form than substance. Let’s imagine that a judge has issued a temporary extreme risk protection order. Then, in a full court hearing within 14 days, that judge determines the petitioner has met the standard of “clear and convincing evidence” to extend the order to 364 days.
The subject of the order has the right, anytime during those 364 days, to appeal one time. In the 2018 version of the bill, the petitioner had to prove the case all over again, even though they had already proved it once. In the 2019 version, the appellant must prove the order should be overturned. That’s generally the way appeals work in our court system. It is not a violation of due process.
In fact, this year’s bill bolsters the due process rights of those who are subject to protection orders by providing them with legal counsel throughout the process if they can’t afford it on their own.
The evidence suggests this bill will save lives in Colorado. Mass shootings get more attention than any other form of domestic gun violence because of their horrific, random nature, but they account for a very small percentage of gun deaths.
The biggest portion, by far, is suicide. In 2016, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 22,938 people in the U.S. committed suicide using a firearm, or 62 every day. People shot by others — all forms of gun homicides — totaled 14,415.
In Colorado, 1,175 people died by suicide in 2017, the 10th-highest suicide rate in the nation, according to the Colorado Health Institute. Half of them used firearms.
While the urge to kill oneself may or may not be rational, the choice of a gun to do it is eminently rational. Eighty-five percent of attempted suicides by firearm are successful. Just 5 percent of attempts using all other methods end in death. So while firearms are used in just 6 percent of suicide attempts, they account for more than half of all deaths by suicide.
Do red flag laws help to prevent suicides? They do, according to Everytown for Gun Safety, the nonprofit founded by former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg to battle gun violence. Connecticut saw a 14 percent reduction in the firearm suicide rate, and Indiana a 7.5 percent decrease, following enactment of red flag laws.
As of last month, 14 states and the District of Columbia had adopted red flag laws, most of them in the year since the Parkland massacre. Progress on gun safety, like progress on mental health, is very slow. But this is something we can do.
It’s a law-and-order bill. A veteran Republican sheriff would be happy to explain it to you.
Dave Krieger has been a Colorado journalist since 1981. @davekrieger