Routt County sheriff, gun store owner skeptical about ‘red flag’ bill to seize guns

Ken Constantine, owner of Elk River Guns, stands in his shop Wednesday. While he wants to see more collaboration between local mental health institutions and his shop to keep guns out of the hands of at-risk customers, he does not see risk protection orders as the answer. (Photo by Derek Maiolo)

STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — Colorado lawmakers are debating a bill that would allow courts to issue temporary extreme risk protection orders and seize guns from people who pose a risk to themselves or others.

HB 19-1177 would permit family members or law enforcement to petition the courts to take away a person’s guns for up to 14 days if that person is thought to be a threat. A judge could immediately issue a search warrant and seizure under what many refer to as a “red flag” bill.

The bill’s sponsors, including representatives Tom Sullivan and Alec Garnett, both Democrats, say the legislation would prevent suicides and gun violence in the state. Others, including Routt County law enforcement and a local gun store owner, worry the bill does not adequately address the issue and may encroach on people’s rights.

Last year, state Senate Republicans rejected a similar bill. Results could be different this time around now that Democrats have majorities in both chambers and have the support of Gov. Jared Polis, who said in November that he wanted a red flag law passed.

In the U.S., suicide is the leading type of gun death, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Colorado lost 1,175 people to suicide in 2017, which the Colorado Health Institute reported to be the highest rate in state history. More than half of those suicides involved a firearm.

Rep. Garnett said the proposed bill provides a way to report risks before people cause harm.

“When an individual is in crisis, loved ones and law enforcement are often the first to see signs that they pose a threat to themselves or others,” Garnett said in a news release. “Extreme risk protection orders can save lives by creating a way for family members and law enforcement to act before warning signs escalate into tragedies.”

Under the legislation, a judge can extend the two-week protection order to 364 days if he or she believes that someone still poses a threat. If that happens, the individual can petition the court to cancel the order before the 364-day period ends.

Concerns from law enforcement

Routt County Sheriff Garrett Wiggins said he supports the concept and justification of the bill, but he has concerns over its implementation and efficacy.

Specifically, he worried that it could be difficult for someone to regain his or her firearms if a judge enforces a protection order. As written, the legislation puts the burden of proof on the defendant — the person whose guns have been taken away.

“I believe the burden of proof should be totally upon the petitioner or government and not upon the respondent to defend against,” Wiggins said in an email.

Others have voiced similar concerns on how the legislation might encroach upon people’s constitutional rights.

“Colorado gun owners loudly oppose so-called ‘red flag’ schemes because they are a gross violation of due process protections and Second Amendment rights,” Dudley Brown, executive director of Rocky Mountain Gun Owners, said in a news release.

Wiggins added that based on his 30 years working in public safety, a risk protection order may have avoided a death or injury involving a firearm.

“But, in most cases where a firearm was used, it was during a planned criminal incident or during a crime of passion where the bill would have had little effect,” he said.

Nonetheless, many people in Routt County experience mental health crises that could lead to violence.

Mental health perspective

Gina Toothaker is the program director for Mind Springs Health in Steamboat Springs, which responds to mental health crises wherein people pose a threat to themselves or others.

Toothaker said Mind Springs handled more than 700 face-to-face crisis evaluations in Routt County last year, which she said is average for the population.

“We are almost always dealing with people who are thinking of hurting themselves,” Toothaker said.

Other states with red flag legislation have reported that suicide risk constitutes the primary reason for taking away people’s guns.

About 80 percent of the gun seizures in Indiana and 60 percent in Connecticut arose from concerns about suicide, according to a Denver Post report.

For Ken Constantine, owner of Elk River Guns in Steamboat, firearm suicide is personal.

Several years ago, he sold a gun to woman whom he said seemed completely fine while she was in his store.

“She passed the background check with flying colors,” he said.

He learned from police several days later that the woman, within a week of purchasing the gun, killed herself with it.

“I have gone through that in my head hundreds of times,” he said. “It could have been avoided.”

But like Wiggins, Constantine does not see the red flag bill as the right solution. He cited concerns over a lack of due process, as well as the potential for upset family members to file a false protection order.

At the same time, he emphasized he does not want a repeat of what happened several years ago.

“The last thing I want to do is provide a gun to someone who is going to hurt others or themselves,” he said.

Constantine sees collaboration with local mental health institutions, such as Mind Springs Health, as a local solution to a national problem. He has proposed collecting names of at-risk patients so he could prevent them from buying a gun at his store.

Patient privacy laws complicate that approach, and so far, Constantine has not been able to work with such organizations, despite several attempts.

Other states’ red flag laws

Twelve other states and Washington, D.C., have passed similar red flag legislation, with varying degrees of success.

Aaron Kivisto, professor of clinical psychology at the University of Indianapolis, studied suicide rates in Indiana and Connecticut, both of which allow extreme risk protection orders.

He found that in the years following the Virginia Tech shooting in 2007, when he said enforcement of protection orders increased, Indiana saw a 7.5 percent decrease in suicides caused by guns.

Connecticut saw a 13.7 percent drop in suicides via gun, but a spike in non-firearm suicides in the state left the overall suicide rate essentially unchanged.

Issues of gun violence and mental health are far from simple. Officials on both sides of the debate over red flag laws agree that no single piece of legislation can fix the problem.

For people considering suicide, help is just a phone call away, or people can go to an emergency room.

The Mind Springs Health crisis line is 888-207-4004, and the national hotline is 800-273-TALK.

To reach Derek Maiolo, call 970-871-4247, email or follow him on Twitter @derek_maiolo.

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