Polis signs ‘red flag’ gun control law, allowing seizure for residents deemed a threat

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DENVER |  Colorado Gov. Jared Polis has signed a highly controversial “red flag” gun law that permits the seizure of firearms from people who pose a danger to themselves or others.

Polis, a Democrat, signed the bill into law on Friday.

The legislation was one of the most disputed of Colorado’s 2019 Democrat-controlled Legislative session.

Centennial state Rep. Tom Sullivan, who’s son Alex died in the 2012 Aurora theater shooting, is the bill’s primary sponsor and has made several emotional appeals to pass the measure.

“These things always happen on Fridays,” Sullivan said. He pointed out that it’s been 351 Fridays since his son Alex was gunned down during the 2012 Aurora theater shooting. “I know this bill is going to save lives.”

Despite opposition by about half of the state’s elected sheriffs and some rank-and-file police, including those in Aurora, the state legislature approved and now Polis has signed the bill.

The move set up a fresh round of recall threats against lawmakers who supported the measure, reminiscent of moves made by Republicans in 2013.

Sullivan said being the father of a child killed by gun violence gives him a unique perspective on the need to enact legislation to protect other parents’ children.

“Everything is stunted. Everything is tempered,” he said.

Aurora Democratic State Sen. Rhonda Fields spoke before the Senate vote two weeks ago, countering opposition about the measure’s lack of due process.

“This is not about taking away anybody’s liberty,” Fields said, it’s about empowering Colorado resident and police to get guns away from people in mental crisis. She said gun rights are already restricted and this gives police a tool to protect families and the public.

The so-called “red flag bill” designed to temporarily remove firearms from persons deemed by a court to be an extreme risk to themselves or others.

Republicans defeated similar legislation in 2018 before they lost control of the Senate in last November’s elections. They fought this year’s bill, which places the burden on gun owners to prove in court they do not pose a risk if they want to recover firearms that have been seized.

Florida passed its own extreme risk protection order law after the 2018 Parkland school massacre, and 12 other states have also done so.

Colorado’s legislation would allow family or law enforcement to seek a court order to have guns seized if they believe the owner is a threat. If approved, a subsequent court hearing would be held to determine whether to extend the seizure up to 364 days.

The bill also would require anyone whose guns are seized to prove that he or she no longer poses a risk in order to get them back. Republicans fought to shift that burden back to those who sought the protection order.

Flying in the face of Aurora Police Department brass and the Aurora City Council, the Aurora police union opposed the measure.

“Our members have clearly expressed to us their concerns about the constitutionality of such legislation and are deeply concerned about the lack of due process in the current bill,” the Aurora union wrote on Facebook. “Police officers understand the value in addressing the real problem, the mental health of individuals in crisis. The problem cannot be successfully addressed by restricting access to tools while ignoring the mental health considerations.”

Judy Lutkin, president of the APA, said an “overwhelming number” of union members have voiced their distaste for the proposed legislation.

The union did not take a formal vote, Lutkin said, but accumulated opinions over the past several weeks.

She said the union, in part, was waiting for a final version of the bill to be solidified before forming a stance on the measure.

“It was partially because we were waiting for the final bill,” Lutkin said. “It also took us a bit of time to get a feel from our membership about how they felt about it.

“Obviously taking guns away from people is a difficult thing for police officers, and there is no mental health component in the bill. It is a valuable thing to make sure people who are mentally ill don’t have guns, but in the process of that you have to deal with the people — not just the tools.”

The union’s position is in contrast to that of Aurora police chiefs, who urged the Aurora City Council to formally support the measure in late February. Council members heeded the department’s request to formally grant the bill a thumbs up.

“Mass shootings by offenders in some stage of mental crisis are certainly one reason to pursue such legislation,” APD Deputy Chief Paul O’Keefe told city lawmakers at a council study session. “Perhaps more to the point, nationally, in 2016, there were 44,965 suicides; approximately 50 percent of those were committed with a firearm. In Colorado, there were 1,168 suicides in 2016. Being able to reduce those numbers by removing the tool most used in almost half of the incidents can go a long way toward saving lives and encouraging people to get the help they need.”

Lutkin said she doesn’t believe the union’s contrarian stance will hinder the organization’s relationship with the chief’s office.

“I feel like there’s a pretty good relationship between the union and the chief’s office. We listen to each other, and they’ve heard our concerns,” she said. “We continue to have conversations with them … we don’t agree on everything, but I feel like our chief’s office is supportive of the APA, so this doesn’t change any of that.”

More than half of the Aurora Police Department’s some 700 commissioned police officers are union members, according to Lutkin.

George Brauchler, the district attorney for the 18th Judicial District who prosecuted the Aurora theater shooting case, has vehemently opposed Sullivan’s measure, regularly sparring with its supporters on social media.

Brauchler supported a previous version of so-called “red flag” legislation introduced in the 2018 legislative session. That bill died in a Republican-led Senate committee late in the session.

The law places the burden of proof on a gun owner to get firearms back by showing that he or she no longer poses a risk.

Opponents argue the law violates the 2nd Amendment and due process rights of gun owners.

It’s Colorado’s most significant gun legislation since background checks and ammunition magazine limits were enacted in 2013.