A gun lock on a pistol at the Meriden Police Department, June 21, 2019. (Dave Zajac/Record-Journal via AP)

By Patty Nieberg, Associated Press/Report for America

Colorado lawmakers heard from Second Amendment advocates and gun violence activists on a bill that would require firearms to be safely stored when they are not in use to keep them away from children and others who shouldn’t have access.

Supporters of the bill asked a House committee Monday to pass the legislation to protect children from accidental gun injuries and teenagers from using firearms in suicide attempts.

Dr. Sindhu Sudanagunta, an emergency medicine pediatrician at Children’s Hospital Colorado, shared a story of her 14-year-old patient to illustrate how firearms are “disproportionately lethal” in suicide attempts. The patient she referred to as “James” had used a handgun stored in his father’s dresser.

“If a child came in swallowing a bottle of Tylenol, I can give them medication and undo that harm. But that bullet sitting in James’ brain is not something I can undo,” Sudanagunta said.

From 2009 to 2019, data from the Colorado Violent Death Reporting System found that 312 teens and young adults under 20 years old were involved in suicides by firearms — approximately 31 individuals per year, according to the bill’s fiscal note.

Opposition to the bill argued it would be an unconstitutional limit on responsible gunowners and could potentially threaten families from accessing their guns in dangerous situations such as a robbery.

Erik Stone, a Teller County commissioner who also opposed the measure, asked the bill sponsors to focus on educating youth on proper firearm use and prevention rather than enforcing a punishment after a fatal incident.
“You don’t do it by creating laws that have penalties after an accident occurs. It’s completely ineffective, so focus on the education,” Stone said.

The bill requires that the Office of Suicide Prevention within the Colorado health department develop and implement an education campaign on safe storage and state requirements on firearm safety.

Others in support said it was a common sense proposal similar to other child protective measures. Rep. Monica Duran, a Democrat from Jefferson county who sponsored the bill, compared the legislation’s purpose to the existing safety recommendations and requirements for prescription pills, toxic household chemicals and fireworks to keep them away from children.

“These measures don’t impede the use of these materials but they are in place to keep our children safe and guns are no exception,” Duran said.

Guns on or near an owner who can “readily retrieve and use the firearm” are exempt from the penalty. Unlawful storage of the firearm would be considered a misdemeanor carrying a fine between $250 and $1,000.

The bill, which would go into effect in July, would require licensed gun dealers to provide a locking device when selling or transferring firearms. Not complying would be a misdemeanor with up to a $500 fine.

The bill also requires the state court administrator to send an annual report to the general assembly about the number and type of charges related to unsafe gun storage.

The bill passed the committee on a 7-4 party-line vote with Republican committee members voting against it. The legislation will go to the Colorado House floor for debate.

The Colorado Senate Judiciary committee will hear another gun-related bill on Thursday that would require owners to report lost or stolen firearms within five days of making the discovery to law enforcement. Police then must enter the firearm’s information into the National Crime Information Center Database and report it to the Colorado Bureau of Investigations.

Patty Nieberg is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.

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