Colorado’s HB 19-1177, a form of what’s called “red-flag legislation,” is designed to allow family or household members and law officers to petition a court for a temporary extreme risk protection order (ERPO) when someone is at risk of doing harm with firearms.
A dozen other states have similar laws, according to the Denver Post, but how effective they are is unclear.
Although the laws have been promoted in response to mass shootings such as the one a year ago at a high school in Parkland, Fla., they seem to be utilized more often to prevent suicides. The Denver Post, which reviewed how the laws have been applied in several states, said suicide prevention was the No. 1 reason for gun seizure in all those states.
How effective were the laws in reducing suicide? According to the Post, one study found that suicides by firearm declined 13.7 percent in Connecticut after the law was passed in 1999, and 7.5 percent in Indiana. However, the drop in Connecticut was offset by a rise in suicides by non-gun methods.
Montezuma County Sheriff Steve Nowlin told the Four Corners Free Press he has doubts about the usefulness of such legislation and doesn’t support it.
“To me it’s a civil matter. It’s a family issue. Why is the government getting involved? Who’s ‘at risk’? Who’s going to determine that – a judge? Really? Just because a person says ‘this person appears to be unstable to me’? How do you know that?”
But at press time, HB 1177 appeared to have a good chance to become law. The House passed it on March 4, sending it to the Senate, and Gov. Jared Polis has said he would sign it.
Under the law, the person petitioning for the emergency order must show by “a preponderance of the evidence” that the person in question poses a significant risk to himself/herself or other people by virtue of having a firearm. The petitioner has to submit a signed affidavit setting forth facts in support of the temporary ERPO, under penalty of perjury for false information.
Counsel is to be appointed to represent the person in question at the hearing. The ERPO process does not involve charging the person with a crime, but is a civil proceeding.
If the temporary ERPO is issued, the court must schedule another hearing in 14 days or less to determine whether to issue a continuing ERPO that would prohibit the person in question from possessing, controlling, buying or receiving a firearm for 364 days.
However, the person can petition the court to reconsider the order.
Nowlin said he understands the reasoning behind the bill and the desire to prevent harm, but he doesn’t believe this is the answer. “We’re not taking people’s cars away and that’s the No. 1 cause of injury and death in this county,” he said.
He said there are other means to handle situations where someone is threatening to harm others.
If someone threatens to shoot up a school, for instance, he said, “We pick a person up. Look at all [their] avenues of communications. I can obtain a search warrant and look for corroborating evidence. If there is, that’s a felony, that’s how that would be dealt with.
“If they’ve committed a crime, deal with it on the criminal side.”
Likewise if someone is threatening to harm himself or herself, there are existing options for handling the situation, Nowlin said. “We already deal with that almost on a daily basis and we take care of that without the law — we get the family professionals involved.”
Asking a court for an emergency order doesn’t necessarily mean it will be granted or extended, the Denver Post said.
Statistics show that 30 percent of Connecticut’s cases are dismissed after an initial gun seizure, the Post said.
Colorado’s law would provide that judges can issue a gun-seizure order and a search warrant at the same time. In some states, law officers who contact a disturbed person to take their firearms have to go back to a judge to get a warrant if the person won’t surrender the weapons, thus setting up the potential for an angry, dangerous second confrontation.