Health care providers, district attorneys and teachers would be added to the list of people who can ask a judge to order the temporary seizure of someone’s firearms in Colorado under a bill introduced Thursday in the legislature.
The proposed expansion of Colorado’s so-called red flag law comes less than six months after a mass shooting at an LGBTQ club in Colorado Springs by a suspect who was known to police and had a history of threatening behavior. Law enforcement and the suspect’s family members, however — who are effectively the only groups who can pursue a red flag gun seizure now — never tried to prevent the alleged shooter from purchasing a gun.
“We’re expanding who can file (a seizure petition), but we’re not changing the criteria,” said Senate President Steve Fenberg, a Boulder County Democrat. “We’re not changing the process.”
The details of Senate Bill 170 were unveiled at a news conference at the state Capitol where Democrats also formally announced three other pieces of gun-control legislation, all of which were expected.
The other bills would:
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- Senate Bill 169, which would raise the age to purchase or possess a shotgun or rifle to 21, matching the current law for handguns. There would be exceptions for members of the military, police, hunters and people younger than 21 who are under the supervision of someone who is older.
- Senate Bill 168, which would make it easier to sue gun manufacturers and sellers
- House Bill 1219, which would impose a three-day waiting period between when someone purchases a gun and can take possession of the weapon
“While this, today, is an expanded step of what we can do to protect lives, this is still part of the journey,” said Assistant House Majority Leader Jennifer Bacon, a Denver Democrat. “You can expect us to continue this work.”
The news conference was twice interrupted by a fire alarm, though there was no smoke or fire reported in the Capitol building. The Colorado State Patrol believes both alarms were caused by system malfunctions and that authorities have no evidence that someone triggered the alarm maliciously.
Republicans and gun rights groups are expected to fight the new legislation.
House Minority Leader Mike Lynch, R-Wellington, said statehouse Republicans’ opposition would be similar to the overnight debate they forced on a 2022 Democratic measure that enshrined abortion access in state law. The measure was approved in the House and signed into law by the governor despite the delay.
“We will push every imaginable amendment you can think of,” Lynch said.
Taylor Rhodes said the gun-rights organization he leads, Rocky Mountain Gun Owners, has gained thousands of members in the past two months in anticipation of Democrats’ gun control package.
“We are going to mount one of the largest opposition campaigns this state has ever seen,” he said, threatening lawsuits.
Despite the opposition, the measures should otherwise cruise through the Democratic-controlled Colorado General Assembly. Gov. Jared Polis appears to support the bills unveiled Thursday.
Colorado’s red flag law was passed by Democrats along party lines in 2019. It allows a judge to issue an an extreme risk protection order, or ERPO, if a petitioner — generally limited to law enforcement or a family member — can show that a person “poses a significant risk of causing personal injury to self or others by having in his or her custody or control a firearm or by purchasing, possessing or receiving a firearm.”
If the order is granted, the judge must rule within 14 days whether to extend the seizure period and prevent the person from buying or possessing guns for up to 364 days. The judge is required to determine whether evidence is clear and convincing in weighing whether a person is a significant risk to themselves or others when deciding whether to extend the seizure order.
The process is a civil one, not criminal, and a person can ask a judge who orders a firearm seizure to reconsider, though the burden of proof then shifts to the person whose guns were taken away to prove that they should get them back.
When a seizure is ordered, the owner of the firearms must turn their weapons over to an authorized dealer or to law enforcement. If law enforcement pursues a seizure order, investigators are also supposed to file a search warrant to try to find any guns that a person may not have surrendered.
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If law enforcement doesn’t initiate a seizure order but one is granted, the law enforcement agency where the person lives is tasked with serving the order.
Sen. Tom Sullivan, a Centennial Democrat whose son was murdered in the 2012 Aurora theater shooting, is one of the lead sponsors of the bill. He’s confident the tragedy would have been prevented if the red flag law and the expansion had been in place.
The theater shooting gunman was being treated by a mental health care provider whom he told that he was having homicidal thoughts.
“We could have had a chance to change the most horrific night in Colorado history,” Sullivan said.
Sullivan said teachers, health care providers — defined as mental and physical health care providers — and district attorneys wouldn’t be liable if they failed to seek a red flag seizure order against someone who goes on to harm themselves or others. “We’re not mandating that they do anything,” he said.
Sullivan also said teachers, health care providers and district attorneys would be shielded from workplace consequences if they pursue an order that is rejected by a judge.
Educators and health care provides would need to have had contact or worked with someone within the past six months to be eligible to seek a gun seizure order.
Senate Bill 170 defines an educator as: “a teacher employed to instruct students” in a public or private K-12 or higher education setting; a counselor who held s a special services provider license with a school counselor endorsement; a school administrator; and a school nurse.
The health care professionals who would be able to seek a red flag gun seizure under Senate Bill 170 include a doctor, physician assistant or advance practice registered nurse who is a primary care provider, a psychiatrist or an emergency room medical provider. Mental health professionals who would be able to initiate a seizure under the legislation would include a psychologist, social worker, marriage and family therapist, licensed professional counselor or addiction counselor.
Fenberg said the idea behind the expansion is to provide more opportunities to stop someone from harming themselves or others with a gun.
“If you’re in a community where law enforcement or family can’t — or won’t —initiate that process there are still other folks in that person’s life that, if this bill passes, now have access (pursue a gun seizure).”
Colorado Democrats are also expected to unveil a bill at the Capitol this year regulating so-called ghost guns, which are homemade and can’t be traced. It’s also possible that a measure banning the sale and transfer of so-called assault weapons is introduced, though the governor has signaled he opposed the policy.
Democrats’ gun bills were announced on the same day the suspected Club Q shooter was ordered held without bond pending trial in Colorado Springs.