by Lisa Cyriacks
Recent mass shooting events trigger the debate about how many of these events result from Americans’ relatively easy access to guns.
The U.S. is one of only three countries in the world where the right to own guns for self-defense is protected in the constitution. Public mass shootings account for a tiny fraction of the country’s gun deaths. Yet public mass shooting are uniquely terrifying in that most of the victims are chosen not for any reason, but simply for where they happen to be—at random.
The harsh reality is, in the United States, people who want to kill a lot of other people most often do it with guns.
Due to recent events, even President Donald Trump expressed interest in expanding background checks on gun sales, although since then he has backtracked on that declaration.
Gun control groups are demanding legislation to protect citizens. At the top of the list are measures like universal background checks, as well as “red flag” measures. Both are aimed at potentially dangerous gun owners.
Earlier this year, the 2019 Colorado legislature passed controversial “red flag” legislation. Also known as Extreme Risk Protection Orders (ERPO), these laws enable law enforcement to temporarily remove guns from the home of people who are considered likely to pose a risk Under the legislation, as written, an extreme risk protection order would be issued after law enforcement, a family member or a household member petitions a judge for the removal of a person’s firearms. The judge would hold a hearing—without the gun owner being present—to decide whether to grant a temporary order for up to 14 days.
During those two weeks, the gun owner and the person who asked for the order would make their cases to the judge. The judge could issue a ruling to extend the temporary order for up to 364 days.
In most cases, it will be county sheriffs who are tasked with notifying individuals of a new protection order, including taking and storing their guns.
Nationally, a recent poll found that 69% of American voters support red flag laws.
Seventeen states and the District of Columbia have enacted ERPO laws. Under most, law enforcement, family members, health professionals, and school administrators can ask a court to prevent a person, who is at risk of violence to self (including suicide) or to others, from purchasing or possessing firearms.
In a recent interview on Colorado Public Radio, Emmy Betz, an emergency physician at the University of Colorado School of Medicine, where her research focuses on preventing suicide by gun. She reports that 76% of firearm deaths in Colorado are suicides.
Opponents’ view the Red Flag Law as violating the 2nd Amendment to the US Constitution.
Colorado’s Red Flag bill has supporters in law enforcement and, also, critics. While some law enforcement officers cite the 2nd Amendment, many argue that the discussion about gun control also has to be a discussion about mental health.
Republican Tony Spurlock, the Sheriff of Douglas County, has been one of the strongest backers of Colorado’s version of the law, which goes into effect January 1, 2020.
Spurlock doesn’t buy the rhetoric of red flag opponents. A self-proclaimed “Second Amendment guy” and “a strong Republican,” Spurlock believes that the law is perfectly constitutional, and says he would “put money on it” being upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court.
Other Colorado sheriffs have indicated their willingness to defy legislation they deem to be unconstitutional—to the point of asking their county commissioners to pass resolutions declaring their jurisdictions “2nd Amendment sanctuary counties”.
Thirty-five out of 64 counties in Colorado have officially passed some form of resolution that publicly rebukes the new law. Each resolution is unique in its language. Saguache County Commissioners have so far not taken a stand or passed any resolution to oppose or support the law. Instead, they have chosen to defer to the courts.
From a practical standpoint, many county sheriffs lack the facilities to house seized firearms, even if the court orders them to do so.
The new legislation also presents challenges to the judicial infrastructure of smaller rural counties. Once an ERPO affidavit has been filed, a court hearing must take place within 14 days.
The debate remains. If an ERPO provides a tool to take guns out of the hands of people who are at risk of taking their own lives or the lives of other people, why would we not want to save lives?
On the other hand, Red Flag Laws beg the question: is it fair to have your firearms taken away? And at what point is someone deemed a threat? In these times where gun violence is way too common, we need to both protect the public, and not abuse people’s rights. A balance that judges and sheriff ’s will have to find.