Red flag gun bill becomes law: Routt County Sheriff Garrett Wiggins answers concerns
Editor’s note: This article was edited to remove a quote that was misattributed to local real estate agent John Tomasini.
STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — About 50 people filled the Champagne Room on Wednesday at Rex’s American Grill and Bar to hear Routt County Sheriff Garrett Wiggins offer his take on a new law that allows judges to temporarily take away guns from people who pose a threat to themselves or others. The event was sponsored by Routt County Republicans.
In April, Colorado became the 15th state to enact a red flag gun law, despite widespread opposition from counties and law enforcement.
Supporters say the law could prevent suicides and shootings, but opponents argue it violates Second Amendment rights and does not address the root of gun violence.
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The law allows family members and roommates to petition a court to take away a person’s guns for two weeks, which can extend to a year if a judge believes the person still could cause harm.
It is not set to take effect until Jan. 1, but local residents already are concerned how it may affect them.
Before delving into the details of the new law and its potential impact on locals, Wiggins made one thing clear.
“This bill has a lot of problems with it,” he said.
A contentious issue
Wiggins sees an extreme risk protection order as an encroachment on civil rights, namely the Second Amendment. He also has doubts the new law will actually accomplish its goals — to reduce violence and suicide rates, especially as a result of mental illness.
Colorado Rep. Tom Sullivan, one of the sponsors of the bill as it passed through the Legislature, lost his son in the Aurora theater shooting in 2012. He believes the law will prevent future tragedies, a view shared by fellow state Democrats.
“We have come a long way in this state since Columbine, and this is a law that will hopefully prevent a future Columbine or help prevent a future family from going through a tragedy,” Rep. Alec Garnett said in a statement.
Wiggins is not so sure.
He agrees that many people in Routt County have mental crises that can make them a threat to themselves or others. Last year, Mind Springs Health handled more than 700 face-to-face crisis evaluations in the county, mostly for people who were considering suicide.
“We have a lot more mental illness in this county than folks even realize,” Wiggins said.
He also agrees public safety can trump one’s right to possess a gun in some cases.
“I think almost anyone in this room right now supports the concept that there are certain people who should never have weapons,” Wiggins said, such as convicted felons and the severely mentally ill.
Concerns from residents
The problem, as one resident pointed out during Wiggins’ talk, is determining who is too mentally unstable to have a gun.
Under the law, the defendant must prove to the judge that they are well enough to keep their guns. That differs from most court cases, where the burden of proof rests on the prosecution.
Another resident, Dr. Colleen “Kelly” Victory, wondered how difficult it would be for a defendant to demonstrate that they don’t pose harm to anyone.
“It’s a lot easier to prove if someone is in crisis than if someone is not,” she said.
Wiggins nodded to her point, assuring the crowd he does not anticipate having to hand out many risk protection orders.
“Looking at this thing from a realistic point of view, I really don’t see this happening very often,” Wiggins said.
He believes more efforts need to go to improving mental health across the U.S. to stop people from wanting to commit violence in the first place.
Fourteen other states have passed red flag bills with varying degrees of success.
Wiggins pointed to an incident in Maryland, which passed a similar bill last year. Two officers tried to issue an extreme risk protection order to a man in November but fatally shot him when he became violent after hearing the news.
Neither officer was injured in the incident, but Wiggins worries about the safety of his deputies if they have to issue a protection order in the county.
Wiggins believes lawmakers did not consider the repercussions of trying to revoke someone’s guns.
“I don’t think they know how law enforcement handles these kind of incidents,” he said.
In most cases, if Wiggins knows an individual poses a serious threat and is armed, he will deploy a tactical team to handle the situation, not just a couple of deputies.
Other law enforcement officials across the state, including Moffat County Sheriff KC Hume, take similar issue with the law. Weld County Sheriff Steve Reams went so far as to say he would rather go to jail than enforce it.
More than half of Colorado counties also oppose extreme risk protection orders. Since Gov. Jared Polis signed the bill into law, at least 35 counties have enacted resolutions declaring themselves “Second Amendment sanctuary” counties to avoid enforcing it.
As for Wiggins, he does not plan to go to jail over his problems with the new law, but he is not afraid of making a legal challenge if he disagrees with a particular risk protection order.
“If I get one of these, I will go through the order with a fine-toothed comb,” he said. “If I find a problem, I’ll be filing an appeal.”
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