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Politics and Government

The red flag gun bill is now law in Colorado. But that doesn’t mean all the questions around it are answered.

Gov. Jared Polis signed House Bill 1177 into law on Friday, saying: "Many other states have passed similar laws. They've often seen it used in a targeted way."

Colorado Gov. Jared Polis speaks to reporters before signing House Bill 1177 on April 12, 2019. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)
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Gov. Jared Polis on Friday signed the so-called red flag gun bill into law, the most extensive gun-control legislation passed in Colorado since 2013, when a host of measures were approved in the wake of the Aurora theater shooting.

While questions around the policy at the Colorado General Assembly might be answered, it doesn’t mean we’ve heard the last of the arguments. The governor’s signature likely marks the beginning of more legal and political battles over a bill that has drawn the ire of nearly half the state’s sheriffs.

“It’s a critical tool for families, for judges, for law enforcement to help reduce gun violence consistent with Second Amendment rights,” Polis said before he signed the bill to a round of applause and cheers.

The legislation gives judges the ability to order the seizure of guns from people deemed a significant risk to themselves or others. Colorado is the 15th state to adopt such legislation, which has become increasingly popular since 17 people were killed in a shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, in 2018.

Data from The Trace. Map by Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun.

The Colorado bill is named for Douglas County Sheriff’s Deputy Zackari Parrish, who was killed in late 2017 while trying to take a mentally distressed man into custody for treatment. State lawmakers considered a similar bill last year, but Republicans — who then controlled the state Senate — rejected the effort. Democrats now control both chambers of the legislature.

Douglas County Sheriff Tony Spurlock, a Republican, has faced immense backlash over his support of the red flag policy. But he says his deputy’s death made it clear it was something he should support.

House Bill 1177 cleared the Colorado legislature without a single Republican vote, facing stiff opposition from the GOP along the way. The GOP has used the measure as part of efforts to raise the specter of recalling Democrats in vulnerable districts who voted for the legislation.

Senate President Leroy Garcia’s decision to vote “no” on the bill was a prime example of that pressure. The Pueblo Democrat comes from a district where his predecessor was recalled in 2013 over her support of gun-control legislation signed into law that year.

Colorado Gov. Jared Polis signs House Bill 1177 on Friday, April 12, 2019. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)

On Friday morning he told reporters he would have preferred legislation geared more toward addressing mental health treatment, echoing a Republican criticism of the bill. “I think we have a great obligation in general, collectively, to make sure that mental health services are at the top of our list,” Garcia said.

But Polis characterized the legislation as being an important part of mental health care in Colorado. The governor also noted Friday the state’s 72-hour mental health hold law, which gives authorities the ability to involuntarily commit someone into treatment who appears to be an imminent risk to themselves or others. Some in the GOP wanted that policy loosened or expanded instead of the red flag law.

“The bar is appropriately very high for involuntary commitment. The bar is also high for the extreme risk protection order, which will save lives,” Polis said. “Today we may be saving the life of your nephew, your niece or your grandchild.”

Now that the red flag bill is law, state officials will begin working on its implementation. The bill doesn’t go into effect until January.

The Colorado judicial branch is tasked with getting courts ready to handle so-called extreme risk protection orders and working on developing the petitions that will be used for the policy. In addition, the Colorado Peace Officer Standards and Training Board will develop best practices around the tool.

“The legislature has given flexibility within the legislation to allow the judicial branch and members of local governments to work together to make sure that it works on the ground,” said Alec Garnett, the Denver Democrat who led the push for the measure.

Law enforcement is also working on how to implement the law.

“Sheriff Spurlock and I are working now, with about 15 other police chiefs and staff members from the POST board of the attorney general’s office, to start to create model policies and procedures for the state of Colorado,” Boulder County Sheriff Joe Pelle said Friday. “Those policies and procedures will guide police agencies in the proper execution in stepping through this 30-page statute and doing it right.”

Pelle — whose son, a Douglas County deputy, was wounded in the shooting that left Parrish dead — said the group is looking at what’s been done in California and Washington as models.

“This can be done safely,” he said. “ It can be done intelligently.”

Boulder County Sheriff Joe Pelle speaks before the bill signing for House Bill 1177 on Friday, April 12, 2019. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)

Even though House Bill 1177 is now law, there are likely to be lawsuits challenging its constitutionality, and conflicts with county sheriffs who have vowed not to uphold a gun-seizure order issued by a judge under the legislation. El Paso County’s commission, for instance, has already vowed to file legal action against the legislation.

Republicans are also likely to target vulnerable Democrats who voted for the bill’s passage either with recall attempts — some of which are already underway — or mailers and ads ahead of the 2020 elections.

Sen. Brittany Pettersen, a Lakewood Democrat and bill sponsor, hinted at that GOP opposition just before the bill was signed Friday. She said “an extreme gun lobby … is threatening my caucus to recall people who support such a measure. It’s unacceptable.”

Garnett noted the upcoming anniversary of the Columbine High School shooting in his remarks Friday. “We have come a long way in this state from Columbine, the 20th anniversary that we will recognize on April 20,” he said. “This is a moment to hopefully prevent a future columbine to hopefully prevent a future family from going through these terrible experiences.”

State Rep. Tom Sullivan, D-Centennial, was a prime sponsor of the red flag bill. His son was killed in the 2012 Aurora theater shooting. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)

Those sentiments were echoed by an emotional Rep. Tom Sullivan, a Centennial Democrat whose son was killed in the 2012 Aurora theater shooting. He was a lead sponsor of the bill.

“It’s 351 Fridays since Alex was murdered,” Sullivan said. “… We will have more work to do. This is just the start.”


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