Coloradans want to eliminate the number of murders, mass shootings and suicides committed with firearms, many agreed Friday in a Colorado Senate committee hearing.
But how that goal can be achieved is the subject of strong and often emotional debate as the Legislature considers House Bill 1117, also known as the "red flag" bill.
The measure would enable a family member or household member or law enforcement official to petition a court for a temporary “extreme risk protection order” if he or she can show a person poses a significant risk to themselves or others by owning a gun.
Colorado’s House approved the bill this month after additional marathon debates, and the Senate’s Committee on State, Veterans and Military Affairs approved the measure Friday afternoon along party lines.
The issue at hand in Friday’s hearing boils down to a simple split, one woman told the committee: “What is more important, taking away someone’s guns or taking away someone’s rights?”
That woman pleaded with the committee to prioritize the lives of those threatened by the likes of suicide, domestic violence and random acts of aggression. Many echoed her sentiment throughout the hours of testimony on Friday, often sharing their own stories of loss, fear and isolation.
Others countered with fears of their own — fears that their constitutional right to bear arms is at risk, fear of vague or unrealistic legislation, and fear of bad actors who might take advantage of the proposed law.
So often, family members and friends of those who commit acts of violence say they had no way to predict what was coming, but Judy Amabile said she and her husband knew their son, who had a history of mental illness, shouldn’t own a gun and once begged a gun shop owner not to sell him one.
“Two days later our son was hospitalized after a standoff with police,” she said. “Every day we wonder what could have happened and when he might try again to buy a gun. There’s nothing stopping him.”
Others recalled the recent death of Douglas County Deputy Zackari Parrish, 29, who was killed Jan. 1, 2018, after he and other deputies were ambushed in Highlands Ranch as they worked to help a man in the depths of a mental health crisis.
Sen. Lois Court, D-Denver, who is co-sponsoring the bill alongside Sen. Brittany Pettersen, D-Lakewood, said the proposed measure could prevent tragic deaths like Parrish’s in the future.
Parrish’s former boss, Sheriff Tony Spurlock, agreed.
“We have a crisis in this country of mental health issues, a crisis where people have been left to take care of themselves and the severely mentally ill cannot do that,” Spurlock said.
Larimer County Sheriff Justin Smith acknowledged the country’s mental health crisis and the existence of those who would do others harm, but said mental health and people must be the focus of any attempt to solve that crisis.
Confiscating property is the wrong way to start, he said.
Others argued the bill would violate Coloradans’ constitutional rights, but Spurlock refuted that notion, adding that due process is a strong part of the proposed law and a judge must first sign off on the extreme risk protection order.
Colorado Attorney General Phil Weiser, who also testified in support of the bill, reiterated that point and noted that the right to bear arms is not absolute in cases where lives are at risk.
After the initial order is issued, the bill would require a second hearing to be held within 14 days where either law enforcement officials or family members must show “clear and convincing evidence” that the person in question remains a danger. If proper evidence is shown, that person’s weapons could be held for up to 364 days while they seek mental health treatment, which could be court ordered under the bill.
For the weapons to be returned, the respondent must prove they are no longer a danger.
Several expressed concerns that the new law could be misused by those seeking to disarm potential victims.
With the committee’s approval, the measure will be passed to the Senate Appropriations Committee.