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Colorado Rep. Tom Sullivan, D-Aurora, who lost his son in the 2012 Aurora theater shooting, waits to speak during a hearing before the House Judiciary Committee on a bill to get a "red flag" gun law on the books in Colorado on Thursday, Feb. 21, 2019. David Zalubowski / AP Photo

Gun Control Legislation Is No Longer a Third Rail in Colorado Politics

The passage of Colorado’s red flag bill in the State Senate highlights how the tide has shifted on gun control—and how deeply divided our electorate is.

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On April 7, 2018, 12-year-old Elina Asensio crowded into the packed bleachers of the high school auditorium in Highlands Ranch for a student-led Town Hall on gun control. She was there to talk about her close friend Emma, who loved sea turtles, wanted to be a marine biologist, and was supposed to graduate 6th grade with Asensio in May. Instead, Emma was shot and killed by her mother in January 2017—just one month after a man with mental health issues shocked the same Highlands Ranch community by shooting five police officers and killing Deputy Zackari Parrish on New Year’s Eve.

Although the Douglas County suburb was long considered a safe Republican stronghold in Colorado’s 6th Congressional District, the currents were changing as students walked out of schools and suburban moms mobilized for gun control. At the Town Hall, Asensio said public speaking helped her deal with her grief. “I’m here to be a voice for Emma,” she said in a 2018 interview. Asensio also hoped lawmakers would approve a new “red flag” law, also called an Extreme Risk Protection Order (ERPO) bill, to allow guns to be temporarily removed from people who pose an extreme risk to themselves or others. The 2018 bill won bipartisan approval in the Colorado House but failed to pass the Republican-controlled Senate.

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One year later, the shift on gun control legislation is evident. But is it sustainable? With Democrats in control of the Colorado General Assembly and the U.S. House of Representatives, gun control legislation that was once the considered the third rail of politics is now at the forefront of state and national debates.

In Colorado, an updated version of the red flag bill just passed the State Senate on Thursday, March 28 with an 18-17 vote and now heads to the desk of Gov. Jared Polis, who supports the measure, after a procedural vote in the House. Nationally, the U.S. House of Representatives recently passed two bills to expand the federal background check system—the first major gun control legislation considered by Congress in 25 years.

“The tide has turned on this issue,” says U.S. Rep. Jason Crow, who serves as vice chair of the House Gun Violence Prevention Task Force and co-sponsored the new background check bills. Crow fearlessly campaigned on gun control in the midterm elections to become the first Democrat to represent Colorado’s 6th Congressional District. The 6th District has a long history with gun violence—mass shootings took place at Columbine High School in 1999, an Aurora Movie Theater in 2012, and Arapahoe High School in 2013. “In Colorado, it wasn’t too long ago that folks would say don’t take on gun violence issues in a state like ours, and in a district like mine,” says Crow. “But we’re at a point where the community is demanding action.”

Crow, who is a gun owner, a hunter, and a former Army Ranger, says the debate has evolved to include more gun owners who see gun control as a public health issue that can be addressed while still respecting the Second Amendment. “Folks who maybe haven’t been advocates about gun safety in the past, or have been on the fence, have finally had enough with inaction,” he says. “They are standing up and saying enough is enough.”

Red flag laws, which are shown to avert about one suicide for every 10 firearms that are seized, often win bipartisan support. So far, 14 states have passed red flag laws and more states are considering them. In Colorado, a 2019 poll of Republican voters found that 60 percent generally support red flag laws, according to Magellan Strategies. Colorado has the nation’s 10th highest suicide rate, and half of all suicides in the state in 2017 involved a firearm.

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Also turning the tide on gun control legislation is a new wave of activism that has amplified the voices of gun violence survivors and victims’ families. Co-sponsoring the red flag bill in the House is Colorado Rep. Tom Sullivan (D-Centennial), whose son Alex was murdered in the Aurora theater shooting. Sullivan, who won an upset victory in the 2018 midterms by campaigning on gun control, now wears Alex’s jacket when speaking before the House. He says his new role enables him to better tell the story of his family’s loss to state legislators—and brings a wider range of lived experiences to the state legislature. “It’s very clear that the stories I tell are stories that they never heard before, and that they never heard in a voice like mine,” he says.

Sullivan predicted that more citizens would share their own stories of how gun violence impacts families and survivors. And they did: During hearings on the red flag bill, Jane Dougherty spoke about her sister, Mary Sherlach, who was killed at Sandy Hook Elementary in 2012. College student Robert Schentrup talked about his sister, Carmen Schentrup, who died in the 2018 shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. Asensio, now in 7th grade and diagnosed with PTSD, also told lawmakers about her friend Emma. “I’m here today to make sure that Emma’s life is not forgotten,” she said.

Even as the Colorado Senate waded through hours of emotional debate on the red flag bill, those ripples continued to spread with news of three recent suicide deaths, including two Parkland shooting survivors and the father of a first-grader killed at Sandy Hook Elementary School. “I know that ‘guns’ is a four-letter word, but we have to talk about it because it’s the only way things are going to change,” says Sullivan. “People who disagree with that are going to have to continue to look away or avoid me or do whatever they think they need to do, but I’m not going to give up.”

Colorado hasn’t passed gun legislation since 2013, when Democrats last held both chambers of the legislature. Two Democratic State Senators were recalled after the vote, and one resigned under the same threat. One of those recalled seats now belongs to Senate President Leroy Garcia (D-Pueblo), who said Tuesday after weeks of silence that he would not support the red flag bill. “I took a hard look at this bill and while I strongly believe in its intent of preventing gun violence, this is simply not the right legislation for the people of Pueblo and southern Colorado,” Garcia told The Pueblo Chieftan on Tuesday. With an already slim majority in the Senate, Democrats passed with bill with no Republican support.

While gun control legislation may no longer be an untouchable issue in American politics, it’s still contentious, especially here in Colorado. The state’s updated red flag bill would allow a family or household member, or law enforcement, to ask a judge to temporarily remove a gun from a person who poses a risk to themselves or others. A judge can grant a temporary order for up to 14 days, and after a hearing with all parties, extend that order up to 364 days.

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Opponents say changes to the 2019 bill make it worse, including extending the length of the protection orders and switching the burden of proof for returning guns to the person who is served with the protection order, instead of the person who requests it. But the bill also responds to previous criticisms by requiring the state to provide legal counsel for the person who receives the protection order and provides penalties for anyone who makes a false claim.

Outside the State Capitol, many sheriffs say they simply won’t enforce the law, while more than half of Colorado’s counties have declared themselves “Second Amendment Sanctuaries.” Democratic Attorney General Phil Weiser recently pushed back on the defiant sheriffs, telling the Colorado Sun that sheriffs who can’t follow the law should resign. On Tuesday, Democratic Gov. Jared Polis stressed in a press conference that sheriffs are tasked with enforcing laws and not making them. But he also eased the pressure by acknowledging that sheriffs have the discretion to prioritize their law enforcement resources.

On this point, Polis has agreement from Senate Assistant Minority Leader John Cooke (R-Greeley), a former Weld County Sherriff, who supports the revolt. “Down here at the Capitol, it’s very Denver Metro-centric and they think they know what’s best for rural Colorado,” he says. “That’s why emotions are running high.” In 2013, Cooke was one of the first Colorado sheriffs to refuse to enforce the state’s new gun laws, which he called “unenforceable.” Cooke says growing up with firearms is simply a way of life in rural Colorado, where it’s commonplace to see shotguns or rifles in the back of pickup trucks at local high schools belonging to teens who went prairie dog shooting after school. “It’s just part of their DNA,” he says.

Cooke says he could potentially support a red flag bill if it addressed the risk of the person receiving the protection order and not just the weapon. He co-sponsored a 2017 law that used about $7 million in marijuana tax funds to increase resources for people in need of an emergency 72-hour mental health hold, which he says is a more appropriate remedy for those at risk. “If you’re so concerned about the safety of that person, take the person instead of the gun,” he says.

But those who support the red flag bill, including Douglas County Sheriff Tony Spurlock, say the “imminent danger” requirement for a 72-hour mental health hold can be too high to enable law enforcement to remove the guns of all people who pose a significant risk of harm—including the man who killed Deputy Parrish.

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Cooke expressed other concerns. The bill itself is an unfunded mandate, meaning that local governments would have to finance gun removals. In places like Weld County, he says, citizens may own multiple gun safes. If the gun safes are locked or too heavy to lift, how would law enforcement retrieve the guns? And, where would they be stored? He also raised the matter of due process. “You’re taking people’s property for the first time based on the thought that they might commit a crime, without that person actually committing a crime,” he says.

But, as Cooke points out, the divide between Democrats and Republicans is much deeper than any specific provisions in the bill. “Republicans look at guns as inanimate objects and we believe that we need to deal with the person. The Democrats see that the gun is the problem,” he says. “Until we can figure that out, I’m not sure there will be any compromise.”

In the Senate, tensions have been climbing over Republican tactics to slow the pace of controversial bills that are being fast-tracked by the Democratic majority—including gun control, oil and gas regulations, the national popular vote, and comprehensive sex education. Ultimately, Republicans may not be able to stop Democratic bills from passing, says Cooke. “But that doesn’t mean we won’t use these votes against them the next time an election comes around,” he says.

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