It’s unclear whether ‘red flag’ laws – which allow the seizure of guns from a person deemed dangerous – help prevent mass shootings or should have been applied to the suspects in recent shootings in Indianapolis and Boulder, Colorado. By Kaiser Health News. April 23, 2021, at 12:28 p.m
By Christie Aschwanden | KHN
On New Year’s Eve 2017, sheriff’s deputies in the Denver suburb of Highlands Ranch responded to a domestic disturbance. Before the night was over, four officers had been shot and Douglas County Sheriff’s Deputy Zackari Parrish III was dead.
“We tried every legal avenue we could to not only protect him but to protect the community,” said Douglas County Sheriff Tony Spurlock. At that time, however, there was nothing more they could do.
That changed with the passage of the Deputy Zackari Parrish III Violence Prevention Act, a “red flag” law that took effect in January 2020. It gives judges the ability to issue “extreme risk protection orders” allowing law enforcement to seize firearms from people deemed dangerous to themselves or others.
Colorado is among the most recent of 19 states to have enacted red flag laws. Connecticut was first, in 1999. Since then, the data has been mixed on whether the laws have prevented suicides and inconclusive on their power to curb mass shootings. The Connecticut law did not prevent the 2012 mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, for instance, though proponents usually point to the laws as one tool for preventing shootings, not one that’s 100% effective.
From Jan. 1, 2020, to March 26, 2021, Colorado tallied 141 red flag cases. Extreme risk orders were granted under the law in 28 of the state’s 64 counties, including some of the more than 35 counties whose sheriffs or county leaders opposed the law and declared themselves “Second Amendment sanctuaries,” where the law would not be enforced, said state Rep. Tom Sullivan, a Democrat. Sullivan, who is one of the bill’s sponsors, has been a gun control advocate since his 27-year-old son, Alex, was among the 12 killed by a gunman in the 2012 Aurora movie theater shooting.
Where the red flag law has been used in Colorado, “it’s clearly saved those individuals’ lives. Those people are still alive, and their family members are still alive, and they’re not in custody for homicide,” Douglas County Sheriff Spurlock said. “I do think it keeps my officers safer, and it keeps our community safer.”
But the law still has numerous opponents. Weld County Sheriff Steve Reams counters that situations like the one last fall in which an extreme risk protection order was approved for a 28-year-old man making plans to assassinate state Attorney General Phil Weiser should be dealt with using criminal charges, rather than a red flag law.
“Red flag, to me, doesn’t look like a primary way of dealing with a potentially criminal situation,” said Reams, who called Sheriff Spurlock a good friend with whom he’s repeatedly debated the issue.
As for people at risk of self-harm, Reams said he’d rather have better ways to get them mental health treatment than take their guns away.
Opponents of red flag laws say they’re unconstitutional, but a challenge to Colorado’s law on constitutional grounds filed by the group Rocky Mountain Gun Owners and several Republican lawmakers was dismissed by a state District Court judge in Denver last spring.
Some opposition to Colorado’s law focuses on the execution, rather than the intent. Dave Kopel, an adjunct law professor at Denver University and an analyst with the Libertarian-leaning Cato Institute, has testified in favor of red flag laws in the Colorado legislature but is critical of the current law for what he says are weaknesses in due process.
“The accuser never has to appear in court or be cross-examined,” he said, and that means that the judge may hear only one side of the case. “My view, as a constitutional law professor, is that you should write the law with strong due process protections at the start.”
But Spurlock, a Republican, said there is more due process in implementing Colorado’s red flag law than there is in police obtaining a search warrant. He said he supports gun rights but does not support allowing possession by felons or people who are a danger to themselves or others.
“That’s why I supported the red flag. And I will continue to do so. I know for a fact that it saves lives, and it’s not harming anyone,” he said.