Legislation allowing the seizure of guns from people deemed to pose a threat to themselves or others cleared a Colorado House committee just before midnight Thursday.
Colorado Democrats see a big opportunity this year to pass the legislation after its defeat in last year's divided legislature.
This year's "red flag" bill — formally known as an "Extreme Risk Protective Order" (ERPO) — got its first hearing on Thursday before the state's House Judiciary Committee.
House Bill 1177 cleared the committee just after 11:30 p.m. on a party-line 7-4 vote and was sent to the House Appropriations Committee for its next review.
The bill is named for Douglas County Deputy Zack Parrish, III, who was killed in an ambush on New Year's Eve in 2017 by a veteran known to suffer from PTSD. Thursday would have been Parrish's 31st birthday.
Under HB 1177, a family member, household member or law enforcement officer can petition the court for a temporary ERPO when they can demonstrate that a person poses a significant risk to themselves or others by having a firearm in his or her custody.
A second hearing, to be held within 14 days, would require either law enforcement officials or the family to show by “clear and convincing evidence” that the respondent is still a danger. At that time the weapons can be held for up to 364 days while that person seeks treatment.
Once the temporary order is issued, the respondent must turn over all weapons to law enforcement or a federally licensed firearm dealer. To get those weapons back, the respondent must prove they are no longer a danger, using a “beyond a reasonable doubt” standard.
Colorado's Democratic attorney general, Phil Weiser, urged lawmakers to support the measure. In a letter sent Thursday to the committee, Weiser said that the bill is designed to save lives.
"According to one study that evaluated ERPOs in other states, researchers estimated that one life was saved for every 10 to 20 ERPOs issued by the court," Weiser wrote.
"For this reason above all others, I strongly support HB19-1177."
Weiser also said he believes the bill is constitutional and does not violate the Second Amendment. Democrats on the committee pointed out that even groups like the National Rifle Association didn't claim a Second Amendment violation.
Nevertheless, opponents say the legislation infringes on citizens' Second Amendment rights and could deter people from seeking care for mental health issues.
Republican lawmakers raised concerns that people would file frivolous petitions, although several district attorneys pointed out that would constitute perjury for which offending parties could be prosecuted.
House Minority Leader Patrick Neville, a survivor of the 1999 Columbine High School massacre, says the bill would discourage citizens from seeking help because of the "stigma" associated with mental illness.
"No one should feel they have to choose between their guns and getting the help they need," Neville said in a statement.
At Thursday's hearing, two Colorado sheriffs urged lawmakers to enact the bill.
Douglas County Sheriff Tony Spurlock, whose department included Parrish, told the committee the bill makes it easier for police agencies to intervene to help those in crisis.
Boulder County Sheriff Joe Pelle said the measure will make communities — and officers — safer. Pelle's son is also a deputy in Douglas County and was shot in the same incident as Parrish. He has since recovered.
Witnesses who own guns also testified in favor of the bill. Mary Parker, who works with abused children, told the committee that while she appreciates efforts by Republicans to protect her gun rights, some of the bill's opponents value their guns more than they value life.
But there were plenty on hand — including law enforcement officials — to testify against the red flag bill.
That included Weld County Sheriff Steve Reams, who said lawmakers should focus on bolstering mental health care rather than "overreach" in removing guns owned by citizens deemed to be in mental crisis.
Reams said he also was speaking for sheriffs in El Paso, Larimer, Mesa and Teller counties.
John Anderson — a retired commander of the Castle Rock Police Department and a 20-year veteran of SWAT teams — testified that the bill, if adopted, could create dangerous situations if SWAT officers are sent to confiscate arms from citizens deemed a threat.
The bill, he said, assumes that "the accused is guilty until proven innocent."
George Brauchler — Arapahoe County district attorney and the prosecutor of the Aurora theater shooter — last year supported the unsuccessful "red flag" legislation.
But Brauchler, a Republican who ran unsuccessfully for state attorney general, testified against this year's version.
He said he wants a higher standard of evidence for anyone seeking a court order to remove guns from someone on the grounds that the person is in crisis.
Brauchler also objected to the bill's requirement that the gun owner prove that he or she has overcome his or her crisis in order to get the weapons back. He also said a maximum 364-day duration for risk protection orders is too long.
Brauchler said if the bill passes, lawmakers should revisit it in two or three years to fix any shortcomings.
Witnesses on both sides of the argument pointed out that the bill does not address the underlying issue of Colorado's lack of access to mental health treatment.
One witness, whose son has attempted suicide several times, including with a gun, pointed out that the state's two mental hospitals reserve their few available beds for people who are there under criminal charges.
"This bill will help keep our loved ones alive, waiting for the day when you figure out how to address the lack of mental health treatment," she said.
The bill's sponsors — House Majority Leader Alec Garnett of Denver and Democratic Rep. Tom Sullivan of Centennial — offered a handful of amendments they hoped would assuage some of the concerns from opponents.
Those amendments included ensuring the subject of a protective order is notified that he or she would be appointed a lawyer for a formal hearing and that neither side would be charged fees.
All weapons would have to be returned within three days of the end of the order under another amendment approved by the committee.
Yet another amendment would ensure that a concealed carry permit would be returned along with any firearms, although Garnett said he would work with other lawmakers on language dealing with the reissuance of the permit to cover the time period that the permit was out of the respondent's custody.
An additional amendment requires law enforcement to return the weapons in the condition in which they were seized.
But "that's an almost impossible task," said Republican Rep. Hugh McKean of Loveland, a firearms instructor.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.