We must do something. This is a phrase that as a law enforcement official, I’ve come to dread. I dread the term not because of its literal meaning, but because of how it gets used by lawmakers after some terrible event occurs. As a 23-year veteran law enforcement officer, I understand the concept of doing something about a problem that may be impacting my community. In fact, that’s truly what law enforcement officers are; problem solvers.
Unfortunately, trying to solve problems through legislative change isn’t nearly as easy as your lawmakers would like you to believe, and there is no better example of that than gun laws and the mental health crisis in our state. Over the past few years, our state legislators have responded to violent criminal acts in our state by passing laws against the tools/weapons used by the suspects in these criminal events. We have seen high-capacity magazine bans, gun-transaction laws, extreme-risk protection orders (red flags) and now the threat of laws pertaining to safe storage (for guns) and mandatory reporting of lost or stolen weapons. To a person who equates gun violence to the gun and not the user of said weapon, these seem like the proverbial “common sense” approaches. While these gun restriction efforts may be well intentioned, they are ill conceived and mostly pointless. With each of these efforts, the response rarely matches the problem and, unfortunately, they rarely have a measurable impact on the next incident.
Recently, I participated in an effort to pass House Bill 20-1271 which would have slightly lowered the legal standard for law enforcement to take custody of an individual for a mental health evaluation and would have also repealed Colorado’s extreme risk protection order law. The concept was to address what the ERPO law’s backers said it was designed to do: keep people with alleged mental illness from doing harm to themselves or others with a firearm. We can all agree that the concept of not allowing someone to hurt themselves or others with a firearm is a noble concept but one that is not easily agreed upon when it comes to the methodology. HB20-1271 was focused on simply addressing a concern that seems to have universal recognition — the need to get mental health treatment for a person who is in obvious crisis whether that be by firearm violence or some other means.
As anticipated, the proposed bill was summarily dismissed in the legislative process by the House Judiciary Committee. What I found interesting, and you should too, is the comments from all the legislators as to why the bill was being dismissed. The three supporting legislators acknowledged that there was a crisis with our mental health system and that while HB20-1271 wasn’t a complete fix to the problem, it was at the very least a good start. In addition, HB20-1271 would remove the extreme risk protection order law that has proven problematic and controversial. What was more shocking was the comments from the nine legislators who were in opposition of the bill. Each of the nine, to some degree, also acknowledged that the mental health system in the state of Colorado was in crisis but simply didn’t agree with the approach that HB20-1271 provided and wanted a more comprehensive approach to addressing mental health needs.
My takeaway as a law enforcement officer: The expression “we must do something” only applies when that effort aligns with passing controversial and ineffective gun legislation but not when it comes to finding or attempting to fix our broken mental health system. As a long-time law enforcement officer, I beg the voters to demand that our legislators quit talking about our mental health crisis and instead show some true compassion through correctly aimed legislation to address the problem. Passing gun legislation under the cover of mental health reform doesn’t help anyone.
Steve Reams, a Republican, is serving his second term as Weld County sheriff, having been elected in 2014 and re-elected in 2018. He is a career law enforcement officer.