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Colorado ‘red flag’ gun law divides rural, urban sheriffs

A handgun and a gun safe. (Tech. Sgt. Thomas Dow/U.S. Air Force)

Colorado police and sheriff deputies already have the authority — and use it — to confiscate guns from someone they believe is an “imminent” threat to themselves or others, Pueblo County Sheriff Kirk Taylor said this week.

“It happens now, but it’s at our discretion when someone is being placed in a 72-hour hold for mental evaluation,” Taylor said. “Under this red-flag legislation, we lose that discretion and would have to enforce the court order.”

That image — of police confiscating guns from someone’s home — was evoked often last Friday in the emotional House debate over House Bill 1177.

The so-called “red-flag” bill would require police to temporarily confiscate a person’s guns if a judge issues an Extreme Risk Protective Order based on a complaint from police or a family member that the person is a “significant” threat to themselves or others.

House Democrats approved the bill Monday and sent it to the Senate, where the always-intense debate over guns will resume. Gov. Jared Polis has said he supports such laws. More than a dozen states have them.

Taylor said he supports the concept — but not the reality — of what the bill requires. It needs amendments, he said.

“I haven’t got space in my evidence room for holding many weapons from these kind of protective orders,” he said. “I would change the bill, so that any firearms confiscated are given to a third party picked by the owner. That’s what we do now on mental-health holds.”

A year ago, the County Sheriffs of Colorado supported a similar bill. Then, Douglas County Sheriff Deputy Zackari Parrish had just been shot to death by Matthew Riehl, an Army veteran who’d been displaying emotional problems.

“That played a big role in our support,” Taylor said, noting the sheriff’s association is staying neutral this year.

While the bill is dividing the Legislature between most Democrats and Republicans, it is also splitting the state between rural and urban areas.

Pueblo Police Chief Troy Davenport said it was fairly rare that his officers had to confiscate weapons, but “whatever the law is, we will enforce it.”

Not so in Fremont and Custer counties, where commissioners have declared those areas “Second Amendment sanctuaries” — a largely symbolic gesture that says they will support their sheriffs if they oppose the bill.

Fremont County Sheriff Allen Cooper said he is taking a “wait-and-see” approach to the final legislation but would not enforce it if he believes it is onerous. Custer County Sheriff Shannon Byerly said he wouldn’t commit to nonenforcement, though he generally agrees with Cooper.

“We’re not there yet. I expect the legislation will pass, but I can envision a situation where I wouldn’t be willing to enforce this,” Byerly said.

Both sheriffs said their deputies already confiscate weapons from people having mental problems. Cooper’s done it himself.

“The big difference is, I’m there to evaluate the person and take them into custody if necessary for a 72-hour hold,” he said. “I know they will be taken somewhere for treatment and evaluation. Under this bill, you’re only taking the weapons away.”

The red-flag bill would let a family member make an appeal to a judge for a court order. Critics argue the bill allows former spouses and others with a grudge to request a court order without the person knowing it until police knock at the door.

Cooper said concerned people should still call law enforcement and let them evaluate a person in question.

Byerly noted that when deputies believe someone is having a serious mental episode, they stay there until a judge authorizes a warrant to search the property for weapons.

He didn’t like the idea that an ex-wife or other family member could make a complaint to a judge and, if the judge is persuaded, have an order issued to confiscate someone’s weapons.

“This seems to stand due process on its head,” he said.

Supporters of the bill argue that getting a court order from a judge could be safer for those who feel threatened; the person in question might not be displaying dangerous behavior when police come to the door.

Parrish was on his second visit to Riehl’s apartment on the night Riehl’s fatal shooting.


© 2019 The Pueblo Chieftain (Pueblo, Colo.)

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.