2020 marked the first year for Colorado’s red flag law. It was only used once in Montezuma County and 111 times in the state as a whole. In this week’s Health and Prevention Report, KSJD’s Tay Glass examines what the past, present and future look like for Colorado’s red flag law.
Breeah Kinsella lives in Mancos, in Montezuma County, and is the executive director of Celebrating Healthy Communities. She identifies as liberal and a proud gun owner.
“A funny joke that I like to tell my libertarian and more right wing friends is that I'm so far left that I got my guns back,” she says.
But she’s on the fence when it comes to Colorado’s ERPO law. ERPO stands for Extreme Risk Protection Orders. But most people know ERPOs as red flag laws. They vary a little state by state, but generally ERPO laws are gun control measures that let police or family members petition the courts to remove firearms, specifically from a person who poses a significant risk to themselves or others.
Here’s how Kinsella puts it: “You're having a mental wellness crisis, and someone can come take your firearm away, then chances are you'll make it through that crisis, right? On the flip side, is that chances are the enforcement is going to be inequitable.”
But Kinsella isn’t sure that something like Colorado's red flag laws can ever be talked about as a non partisan issue.
“This polarization is so intense, especially in southwest Colorado,” she says. “You have very angry people on the right, you have very angry people on the left.”
Although Colorado’s red flag law was only used once in Montezuma county in its first year, and just over a hundred times statewide, there’s been a lot of discussion about it recently. Part of that is to do with the recent shootings in Boulder and Colorado Springs. Depending on who you talk to, the red flag law could have made a difference.
Eileen McCarran is the president of Colorado Ceasefire Legislation. According to McCarran, the organization was one of the driving forces behind Colorado’s red flag law. She also thinks that the red flag law could have prevented the shooting in Boulder.
This is all hypothetical, of course. It is not clear whether the shooter’s family even knew about Colorado’s red flag law. But McCarran thinks broader knowledge of this law could prevent unnecessary gun deaths in the future. And parts of Colorado’s legislature seem to agree. In the wake of the Boulder shooting, they introduced a series of bills:
“One of them would provide funding for the Gun Violence Prevention Office,” says McCarran. “And in that, one of their charges is to help educate the public on ERPO and other gun laws of the state.”
The bill that would create “The Office of Gun Violence Prevention” is currently under consideration by the Colorado General Assembly. If it’s approved, the office would exist within the Department of Public Health and Environment. Public health. Not mental health. Colorado’s red flag law very deliberately doesn’t mention mental health.
“Only a small portion of people who are mentally ill are violent,” McCarren says. “There are people who are violent who are not mentally ill.”
Daniel Fennelson is on the board of the Colorado State Shooting Association, Colorado’s NRA affiliate. Fennelson’s and McCarran’s organizations don’t always see eye to eye. But they do agree on one thing:
“I don’t think red flag laws are about mental health,” says Fennelson. “I also don't think red flag laws are about protecting people. Again, protecting people means you allow them to defend themselves.”
This is personal for Fennelson. He’s a school shooting survivor.
“I've seen what happens when those rights are taken away in a very liberal city, when it comes to the gun issue, where we were not allowed to be armed,” he says. “But the criminal didn't listen to the rules.”
Fennelson was in his biology lab when a gunman killed one and injured two others at Seattle Pacific University in 2014. He thinks taking a person’s gun away could stop that person from defending themselves.
“We believe in personal responsibility for our own safety and our family's safety,” he says. “We just don't think that government intervention is the way to produce a safer Colorado or safer Cortez.”
Dr. Emmy Betz is the founder of Colorado Firearm Safety Coalition. She did an exhaustive study of all of the uses of Colorado’s red flag law in 2020.
“ERPO and red flag laws are an important option, but really the last resort,” says Betz. “This is sort of the equivalent of taking away your friend's driver's license instead of, you know, getting him a ride home from the bar when he's had too much to drink.”
Betz thinks that, regardless of what side of the debate you’re on, Coloradans should agree on one thing. She says that, for her, it really comes back to the central belief that none of us wants to lose friends or family to firearm injuries or deaths.
That’s something heard time and time again from people on both sides. Breeah Kinsella from Durango had this to say:
“I mean at the end of the day, it's going to be the conversations that happen in the bar, or at the farm, or at the bank line, or whatever, where a person like me can look at a person way far right of me and have a conversation and remember that that person is human.”
There are certainly more conversations to be had.
Health and prevention reporting on KSJD is made possible with support from Celebrating Healthy Communities, the Montezuma County Health Department, and Southwest Health System.