Since the Parkland, Fla., mass shooting in 2018, at least nine states have passed legislation allowing police to seize guns from people found to pose a significant danger to themselves or others. On Monday, Colorado looked poised to become the 10th.
The Democratic-controlled legislature sent the bill to Colorado Gov. Jared Polis (D), who is expected to sign it into law. The bill, inspired by the 2017 fatal shooting of a deputy who sought to assist a mentally ill man, would allow police and family members to petition courts to temporarily seize guns from people deemed dangerous. It’s slated to go into effect in 2020.
But not if “Second Amendment sanctuaries” can help it.
In anticipation of the bill’s passage, half of the state’s 64 county governments have now passed resolutions indicating they do not wish to enforce the red-flag law, or will not “infringe on the right of the people to keep and bear arms,” as one county put it.
One such sanctuary is Weld County, the state’s leading cattle raiser on the border of Wyoming and Nebraska. The sheriff there is Steve Reams, who has emerged as perhaps the loudest voice opposing the red-flag law.
In recent days, he could be found on CNN or Fox News, vowing that he would rather face jail time for contempt of court than comply with a court order to confiscate guns. In an interview with The Washington Post on Monday, he insisted his opposition was not grounded in the Second Amendment.
Rather, Reams said, it was about due process for gun owners, something he believes is missing from the red-flag legislation.
“If a judge issues an order saying a person can’t possess weapons, and also compels law enforcement to perform a search warrant to seek out those guns, I believe that’s a violation of a person’s constitutional rights,” he said. “I have a hard choice at that point. I can potentially violate someone’s constitutional rights. Or I can violate a court order. I would rather be on the side of violating a court order than someone’s rights.”
The argument, popular among gun-rights conservatives, centers on the fact that people targeted by red-flag laws are not given a chance to defend themselves in court before a judge issues a temporary order confiscating the guns.
Once a police officer or family member files a petition, a judge can decide within 24 hours to compel a person to turn over their guns. Under Colorado’s law, the judge would then hold a second hearing within 14 days to give the gun owner an opportunity to defend himself or herself. The person would be provided an attorney and allowed to argue for the return of the weapons.
If a judge finds the person still poses a threat to themselves or others, the judge can order their guns seized for up to 364 days. The person would be allowed one opportunity during that time to argue again for access to the guns — although the burden of proof is on the gun owner’s shoulders, another grievance among Republicans like Reams. If the person is found to be mentally ill, the judge may also order treatment.
Fourteen states and the District of Columbia have similar red-flag laws on the books, with different burdens of proof and lengths of time guns remain seized. None of those laws have run into serious legal challenges.
Reams thinks Colorado’s sheriffs might change that — particularly, he said, if he were to refuse to enforce the law.
“By violating that court order, the penalty could end up that I could be sentenced to my own jail,” he said. “It would be a different way of getting something in the courts, but it’s not unheard of in the state of Colorado.”
The movement by the state’s conservative counties has angered the state’s attorney general, Phil Weiser (D), who said during a Colorado Senate committee hearing Friday that sheriffs who don’t plan to enforce the law should just leave office. Promising the sheriffs that the law would withstand any legal challenge, Weiser pointed to the Supreme Court’s 2008 decision in District of Columbia v. Heller, which noted that the Second Amendment should not be misconstrued to mean “unlimited” access to firearms.
“If a sheriff cannot follow the law, the sheriff cannot do his or her job,” he said, the Colorado Sun reported. “The right thing to do for a sheriff who says ‘I can’t follow the law’ is to resign.”
The 32 counties fighting the law have taken their opposition to varying lengths. Some sheriffs insist that they will still enforce the red-flag law. Even Douglas County passed a resolution against the law despite the fact that it’s named after one of its own slain deputies — a move that ignited a feud between the county commissioners and the sheriff.
Douglas County Sheriff Tony Spurlock, a Republican, has been one of the most ardent supporters of the red-flag law, which is also called the Deputy Zackari Parrish III Violence Prevention Act. But last month, Douglas County commissioners threatened to withhold funds from Spurlock if he chose to enforce it, Denver7 reported.
“They would be foolish to take money away from the office of sheriff because I enforce the law,” Spurlock told the news channel. “Essentially, what they’re trying to do is extort me, in my opinion.”
Spurlock began pushing for the legislation after Parrish was fatally shot on Dec. 31, 2017, while responding to a call from a man in distress.
The warning signs that 37-year-old military veteran Matthew Riehl’s mental health was deteriorating had been piling up for years, as police fielded numerous 911 calls related to Riehl’s mental health, The Post reported last year. But early the morning of New Year’s Eve 2017, Parrish needed only a few hours to discern that something was wrong.
Riehl, had spent the night talking on Periscope to no one in particular while sipping a Scotch. Over the live stream, Riehl railed against his roommate after getting into an argument, threatening to murder him “in self-defense,” saying he had bought more than 1,000 rounds of ammunition from Walmart.
He called 911 about his roommate twice, telling police the man “totally freaked” on him. Parrish and other deputies assessed the situation but found no crime had been committed. They returned just two hours later, when Riehl summoned them again.
This time, Parrish could see that Riehl was disturbed. He feared the increasingly incoherent and angered veteran posed an immediate danger to himself or others.
When deputies stormed in to take him into protective custody, Riehl ambushed them. He fired an estimated 395 rounds from his bedroom, all while streaming on Periscope. Parrish died at the scene.
Had the red-flag law been on the books then, Spurlock told Denver7 last year, he would “like to think” that Parrish would still be alive today.
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