Gun law aimed at reducing suicide, gun violence takes effect: What Routt County law enforcement is doing to enforce it
STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — A new law aimed at preventing suicide and gun violence took effect on Jan. 1 in Colorado, and local law enforcement agencies are making changes to enforce it.
The law permitting extreme risk protection orders, otherwise known as a “red flag” gun law, allows citizens to petition a judge to temporarily take a way someone’s firearms if that person poses a risk to themselves or others. Colorado was the 15th state to pass such legislation.
While supporters argue the protection orders have the potential to reduce suicide rates and shooting incidents, the law has sparked controversy across the state. Opponents argue the legislation encroaches on people’s constitutional rights, and such orders are not an effective way of neutralizing threats. Many counties have listed themselves as “Second Amendment sanctuary” counties to avoid enforcing the law, and some sheriffs have said they refuse to enforce it.
According to the language of the law, family members and roommates can petition a judge to take away a person’s firearms for up to 14 days if that person exhibits dangerous behavior, or “red flags.” The legislation does not provide explicit criteria for what kind of behavior constitutes a threat and tasks law enforcement officials, not mental health professionals, with handling such cases.
For the Steamboat Springs Police Department and Routt County Sheriff’s Office, this has meant adopting new policies and training personnel to enforce the extreme risk protection orders.
Police Chief Cory Christensen said the basic concepts around the new law cover topics on which his officers already are trained. These include policies around unreasonable searches and seizures, responding to possible gun threats and handling individuals who may be in the middle of a crisis.
All officers who stay with the Police Department longer than two years receive crisis intervention training, a week-long course that Christensen said is expensive but invaluable in helping people who are suicidal or otherwise in distress.
Extreme risk protection orders also build on tools that the Police Department has in place to temporarily remove firearms from at-risk people, namely voluntary compliance. In such instances, gun owners voluntarily give up their firearms until they feel they are in a healthier state.
“We are successful a lot in that way,” Christensen said.
Sheriff Garrett Wiggins described using similar tools to defuse crisis situations. He believes law enforcement officials should execute extreme risk protection orders in a dignified and respectful way, but he voiced skepticism if the law, as written, ensures that happens.
Wiggins added that the Sheriff’s Office will evaluate each extreme risk protection order it receives. If he disagrees with any particular protection order, he plans to file an appeal. If a judge denies that appeal, Wiggins said, by law, he would have to execute the order.
In the past, Wiggins has criticized the red flag law for several reasons, chief among them being safety concerns for his officers and the public. As he discussed during a public forum in May, issuing an extreme risk protection order can cause gun owners to react in unpredictable ways and do more harm than good.
He alluded to an incident in Maryland, which passed a red flag law last year. Several months later, officers in the state fatally shot a man who turned violent after hearing he was the subject of an extreme risk protection order.
“We are very concerned about how we approach an individual who falls under this order and take weapons from them,” Christensen said, echoing similar concerns over safety.
When it comes to enforcing extreme risk protection orders, he and his officers have discussed ways to mitigate aggravating factors. Examples include being patient with executing the orders and, if possible, waiting until the gun owner is not present to remove his or her firearms.
“It would be tragic to engage in a procedure that is designed to save laves and end up having to take a life,” Christensen said.
Both Wiggins and Christensen said they do not think risk protection orders will be used frequently in Routt County.
The efficacy of red flag laws remains unclear. One study, which analyzed suicide rates in Indiana and Connecticut — both of which utilize extreme risk protection orders — showed mixed results.
Researchers found, in the years following the Virginia Tech shooting in 2007, when enforcement of protection orders increased, Indiana saw a 7.5% decrease in suicides caused by guns, according to the study. Connecticut saw a 13.7% drop in suicides via firearms, but a concurrent rise in nonfirearm suicides in the state left the overall suicide rate essentially unchanged.
“We will just have to sit back and see how this new law pans out here in Routt County,” Wiggins said.
For people considering suicide, help is just a phone call away. People also can go to an emergency room during a time of crisis. The Colorado Crisis Services hotline is 844-493-8255.
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