Trump claims ‘red flag’ gun laws will keep Americans safe; Routt County law enforcement is skeptical
STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — In the aftermath of two mass shootings last weekend that killed at least 31 people, President Donald Trump proposed a controversial solution to curbing gun violence — taking guns away from people whom friends and family members deem are a threat.
“We must make sure that those judged to pose a grave risk to public safety do not have access to firearms, and that if they do, those firearms can be taken through rapid due process,” Trump said in a televised speech from the White House on Monday. “That is why I have called for red flag laws, also known as extreme risk protection orders.”
He was referring to laws that allow people to petition a court to take away someone’s guns if that person has exhibited behavior — “red flags”— that may make them a threat to themselves or others.
Many in Colorado, including Routt County law enforcement officials, are skeptical such legislation can actually accomplish what supporters claim it will.
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“I’m unaware of any of the recent mass shootings where a red flag law would be impactful,” said Steamboat Police Chief Cory Christensen.
He and other officials worry extreme risk protection orders do not allow for due process and pose threats to the safety of officers tasked with taking guns away from people suspected to be a threat.
Hard to measure success
While controversial, an increasing number of states have passed red flag laws in the wake of mass shootings. In April, Colorado became the 15th state to pass such legislation.
Colorado Rep. Tom Sullivan was one of the state’s primary sponsors of the bill. His son Alex was one of 12 people who died in the 2012 Aurora theater shooting.
“One of the reasons I ran for office was so I could tell all of you about my son Alex, who lit up rooms and was beloved, and so I could tell all of you about other victims and families of gun violence,” Sullivan said in an April news release. “This bill will give law enforcement and families the tools that they need to stop tragedies from constantly happening and save lives.”
At least 17 states and the District of Columbia now have red flag laws, the effectiveness of which is hard to measure. One study from Aaron Kivisto, professor of clinical psychology at the University of Indianapolis, analyzed suicide rates in Indiana and Connecticut, both of which allow extreme risk protection orders. The results were mixed.
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% decrease in suicides caused by guns.
Connecticut saw a 13.7% drop in suicides via gun. But a spike in non-firearm suicides in the state left the overall suicide rate essentially unchanged.
Routt County Sheriff Garrett Wiggins, a Republican, has supported Trump in some areas and disagreed with him in others. When it comes to taking away people’s guns, at least according to the Colorado red flag law, he sees the potential for abuse.
“I agree there are people out there, mentally ill people who should not have access to firearms,” he said. “But how you determine that is the big question.”
According to the state’s law, which takes effect in January 2020, family members and roommates can petition a judge to revoke a person’s firearms for up to 14 days. It 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.
During a public forum in May sponsored by Routt County Republicans, just days after Colorado passed its red flag law, Wiggins told a crowd of about 50 people that he sees a lot of problems with the legislation. Chief among them was the safety of his deputies who would have to issue an extreme risk protection order and take away guns from a reportedly dangerous person.
He pointed to an incident in Maryland, which passed a similar law last year. Officers tried to issue an extreme risk protection order to a man in November but fatally shot him when he became violent upon hearing the news.
Neither officer was injured in the incident, but Wiggins worried a similar event could occur in Routt County.
‘You can’t legislate evil’
Despite his reservations, Wiggins is not surprised by the President’s support for red flag laws, even though many Republicans reject gun control efforts.
“I think everyone, regardless of political affiliation, is looking for answers,” he said.
But as he added, “You can’t legislate evil.”
Christensen agrees that no single piece of legislation can solve such a complex issue as gun violence.
Looking to previous mass shootings, he said many of the perpetrators either did not exhibit suspicious behavior prior to the shooting, or family members and friends never reported them as a threat. In other cases, factors that may have influenced a person to commit such violence stem from childhood trauma.
A former classmate of the suspected Dayton shooter, Connor Betts, told USA Today that Betts had been bullied as a teenager.
“A red flag law is not going to impact that bullying issue that happened in high school,” Christensen said.
Come January, Wiggins said he will review any risk protection orders on a case-by-case basis. If he believes a particular order violates due process or threatens the safety of his deputies, Wiggins plans to file an appeal with the county’s attorney.
Christensen does not anticipate having to enforce many extreme risk protection orders. Much more common, he said, are calls to place medical holds on people who are contemplating suicide. His agency responds to at least one such case each week, but those often do not involve the potential use of a firearm.
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.
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