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Public service announcement #1 on gun storage, February, 2021

Colorado House Democrats on Monday passed the first of several bills intended to improve safety around firearms, sending a bill on safe gun storage to the full House.

The House State, Civics, Veterans and Military Affairs Committee voted along a 7-4 party line to approve House Bill 21-1106, which requires gun owners to securely store their firearms.

The measure — known as “Promoting Child Safety Through Responsible Firearm Storage Act" — is an effort to keep guns out of the hands of kids. Monday’s sometimes-emotional testimony included those who have seen firsthand what happens when guns aren't safely locked up.

HB 1106 creates a class 2 misdemeanor for those who don’t lock up their guns. That can include safety locks, gun safes or something as simple as an adult who has the gun in their possession.

The bill requires the office of suicide prevention within the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment to develop an education campaign for firearms dealers and healthcare providers on the law around safe storage. However, the bill provides no funding for that campaign, relying instead on gifts, grants and donations.

“It is our responsibility to make sure that we protect our children from common household hazards by storing them safely,” said bill sponsor Rep. Monica Duran, D-Wheat Ridge. She said prescription medications have safety caps, and there are safety caps for household chemicals, oxygen tanks and even fireworks. Safety measures don’t impede the use of these materials, and guns are no exception, Duran said.

Fellow sponsor Rep. Kyle Mullica, D-Thornton, said the bill is “not a gun grab, it is not a way to track gun owners and it is not a tack-on” to the Extreme Risk Protection Order, also known as the red flag law.

He also addressed the teen suicide rate, and the tie-in to the bill. Colorado’s suicide rate is the eighth worst in the country, Mullica said. Suicide is an impulsive act, and 85% of those who attempt it do making the decision that same day, and 25% who attempt it within five minutes.

It’s important to do all we can "to not make it easier for youth to access a tool that is extremely effective when it comes to suicide," Mullica said.

The law will also not delay someone from protecting themselves, and safely storing does not mean leaving it under the pillow or unlocked on a shelf. The bill is fair to gun owners and will save lives, he said.

Juveniles do have the right under the law to use a firearm in defense of livestock, under the bill’s language.

Those in favor of the bill included pediatricians, advocates for gun control groups as well as Denver District Attorney (and former state representative) Beth McCann.

Dr. Martha Middlemist was among several pediatricians testifying on behalf of the Colorado chapter of the American Academy of Pediatricians.

She told the committee that last year, two of her patients, two children ages six and eight, were playing at home. The eight-year-old found a loaded firearm, and innocently pulled the trigger, killing the other child. This inexplicable tragedy was completely avoidable, she said.

“My patient is every bit a victim as the deceased child,” she said.

Dr. Sindhu Sudanagunta of Children’s Hospital told the committee about a 13-year-old boy, James, who attempted suicide last month with his father’s handgun. His heart was still beating when he got to the emergency room, but, the doctor said, “I knew he would not walk out” of the ER. She can treat someone who overdoses on aspirin, but “that bullet sitting in James’ brain is not something I can undo,” she said.

McCann told the committee she supports the bill, specifically its educational component.

“We are seeing an increase in the number of juveniles using guns for all kinds of criminal behavior,” she said. The more difficult you can make it for a juvenile to obtain a gun, the less likely they are to commit a crime or have an accident with it, she said.

Committee members questioned how the law would be enforced. Rep. Dave Williams, R-Colorado Springs, said the bill doesn't require police to check to see if anyone has a locking mechanism on a gun.

McCann replied that the enforcement would not be proactive. But there are also ways for the matter to come to law enforcement, she said, such as if a juvenile used a gun and there were an injury or death. Police would look at where the gun came from, she said.

Nephi Cole, the director for government relations for the National Shooting Sports Foundation, said the bill is unnecessary. Retailers have included trigger locks with handgun sales since 1994, he said.

“We have concerns with a one-size-fits-all approach” that applies to people with unique needs. People make good decisions and should be allowed to continue to do so, Cole said.

Several witnesses claimed the bill is unconstitutional, including Greg Trout, who holds a federal license to sell firearms.

“I appreciate the emotional side, but this bill is an egregious assault on our constitutional rights,” he said. The lawmakers’ responsibility is to pass laws to make the state safer and a better place to live, and this bill does neither, he said.

Trout testified that the law would interfere with a person’s ability to defend themselves, given that it takes time for someone to access their firearm once locked up. “You are jeopardizing the very juveniles you claim to want to protect. Locks keep the honest honest.”

As a federal firearms dealer, “it’s not our responsibility to be the state’s errand boy on distributing locks," Trout added.

Several witnesses opposed to the bill, including from Rocky Mountain Gun Owners, also testified that the bill will disproportionately impact low-income citizens who can’t afford gun safes.

One witness testified that his son committed suicide. Ronald Dietz of Littleton said his son did not use a gun because his was locked up. “If they don’t have access to the gun, they’ll find another way,” he said.

But former state Sen. Evie Hudak, now the public policy director for PTA, said that while other methods for suicide may be unsuccessful, guns never are unsuccessful.

HB 1106 now heads to the full House. It’s the first of at least two bills on the gun issue in the 2021 session; the second, Senate Bill 78, on reporting gun thefts, is scheduled for its first hearing on Thursday in the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Both bills are similar to measures from the 2020 session, although put off due to the pandemic. 

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