Colo. lawmakers unveil 'red flag' bill to keep guns out of hands of people in mental health crisis

Posted at 11:58 AM, Apr 30, 2018

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DENVER – With less than two weeks left in Colorado’s legislative session, lawmakers will try and pass a “red flag bill” aiming to temporarily keep weapons and ammunition out of the hands of people in the middle of mental health crises.

The measure, House Bill 1436, will be named after Douglas County Sheriff’s Deputy Zackari Parrish, who was shot and killed while on duty on New Year’s Eve. The man accused of killing him and wounding several other deputies and officers had mental health issues and weapons – which Parrish and his fellow officers knew ahead of their encounter.

Unveiling the proposal Monday were lawmakers from both parties, several metro-area sheriffs, 18th Judicial District Attorney and Republican Attorney General candidate George Brauchler, and mental health professionals.

The measure, the Deputy Zackari Parrish Violence Protection Act, is sponsored by Rep. Alec Garnett, D-Denver, and Rep. Cole Wist, R-Arapahoe Co. Both were praised Monday for their weeks of work on the measure.

Among those on hand for Monday’s unveiling was Douglas County Sheriff Tony Spurlock, who told Denver7 last week that he believes such a measure would have saved Parrish’s life.

The measure would allow families or law enforcement officers to obtain protection orders from a judge that would keep people experiencing a mental health crisis from having guns or ammunition in their home for a certain amount of time.

The lawmakers says as written, the first judge’s order would allow law enforcement to take away a person’s guns and ammunition. They would have another court hearing within seven days to determine if they posed a risk.

The initial order would have to rely on preponderance of evidence as the burden of proof, Wist said. If a judge is to continue withholding the weapons from the person, the law enforcement agency or family member would have to provide “clear and convincing” evidence that the person continues to be a threat.

If the judge approves the order beyond the initial seven-day window, authorities could withhold the person’s weapons for up to 182 days, during which the person can petition the court to get their weapons back, Wist said.

He and others introducing the measure said those stringent guidelines meant that there should be little concerns from lawmakers about due process.

Garnett said the measure, if passed, would give families and law enforcement the “opportunity to intervene before tragedy occurs and limits risk to officers in the field.”

Eight states have similar protection orders on their books, and more than 25 other states considered similar measures this year, he said (Delaware's governor signed its law later Monday, making it the ninth state with such a law). But he said the that “no other state” has worked as closely as the panel in Colorado, and that the law they have proposed is stronger than other states’.

Wist agreed, saying that Garnett’s efforts to reach out across the aisle and to all parties involved have made the measure strong enough for everyone to support.

“I’m very proud that we have avoided the usual pitfalls in drafting this legislation,” Wist said. “This bill carefully preserves due process and the constitutional rights of Coloradans while giving law enforcement and courts the tools they need to get a person in crisis the help they need.”

“Law-abiding gun owners have nothing to fear with this legislation,” Wist added.

Spurlock implored lawmakers to pass the bill on behalf of Parrish and his family, including Parrish’s wife Gracie, whom Spurlock said he’d spoken to ahead of Monday’s announcement.

He said such a measure would have not only saved Parrish’s life, but would have also prevented Douglas County Deputy Dan Brite from being shot and paralyzed in 2016, and would have prevented Jennifer Laber from killing her two sons and then herself that same year in Highlands Ranch.

“They beg you, they beg the legislators – the Senate – to pass this bill,” Spurlock said.

“This bill will save lives. This bill does not infringe upon your constitutional rights to have and to keep and to bear arms. It doesn’t do that,” Spurlock said. “We are not trying to take anything away from anyone.”

He added that if lawmakers didn’t read the bill and consider it, they were “not doing [their] job.”

Boulder County Sheriff Joe Pelle, whose son, Jeff, was also shot when Parrish was killed, said the bill would save lives, and also pleaded with lawmakers to pass the measure. Jeff Pelle returned to work Monday, a tearful Sheriff Pelle said.

“This is something that’s been needed for a long time,” Pelle said, calling the proposal a “workable, actionable measure.”

18th Judicial District Attorney George Brauchler, also a Republican candidate for attorney general this year, praised Garnett for working across the aisle.

“This would have been an easy issue to politick…and use as a club in the elections, but that isn’t what he wanted to do,” Brauchler said.

“I’m skeptical of giving the government authority like this, but skepticism is not an excuse for inaction,” he added, saying Colorado’s version of the bill had the “most due process protection” of any bill in the country.

“Those who are out there who are going to characterize this as a gun-grabber bill…I tell you to read the bill,” Brauchler said. “To do nothing at this point no longer makes sense…there’s nothing that so better balances the needs of public safety and mental health.”

Also on hand for the unveiling were Jane Dougherty, whose sister was killed in Sandy Hook, and a Columbine father.

“This bill will save lives so you won’t get the call that nobody wants to receive,” Dougherty said.

Former House Speaker and Mental Health Colorado Executive Director Andrew Romanoff said the measure would be helpful for people experiencing mental health.

“It’s not about gun control, it’s about suicide prevention,” Romanoff said. “This bill won’t prevent every tragedy; no bill can do that. And if that becomes the test in this building, no measure would pass.”

Gov. John Hickenlooper said he supported the bill.

U.S. Rep. Mike Coffman, R-Colo., tweeted his support for the bill after Garnett and Wist's announcement, and said he's working on a similar measure in Congress.

The executive director of issue education for Americans for Prosperity-Colorado, Michael Fields, said in a tweet that the bill is "a good way to protect both Coloradans & the 2nd Amendment" but clarified that is not the official stance of AFP.

With just 10 days left in this year’s session, Garnett said the bill was “the most important one” on the docket, and urged his fellow lawmakers to read the bill and talk to him about it.

“My door has always been open and it remains open,” Garnett said. “I’m confident we’re going to get this through…we’re willing to sit down and look at any issue.”

While he said he still hadn’t read the measure, Rep. Patrick Neville, a Castle Rock Republican who has championed gun expansion bills killed this session, said he didn’t believe it was the right solution.

“I think that if a person is truly in crisis, we should get the help for that person and focus on the person and not just an object,” Neville, a Columbine survivor, told Denver7.

He said he had questions about the due process afforded people in the bill, which the lawmakers talked about extensively in Monday’s news conference, and said the measure would create a “stigma” for those seeking mental health treatment.

“I think this increases stigma and will prevent people from actually voluntarily seeking the mental health [treatment] they need,” he said.

Wist said he was hopeful that his fellow Republicans in the Senate would back the bill – something that would be necessary since the GOP controls that chamber, but could be tough amid a session filled with partisan fighting.

“I’m an eternal optimist,” Wist said.

And though the measure’s backers said it also contained language that would allow for the law to be reviewed each year, Garnett said it was clear that he wanted action now.

“We can’t wait until next year,” he said.

The measure was officially unveiled Monday afternoon as House Bill 1436.