Texans are still mourning after seventeen-year-old Dimitrios Pagourtzis took a shotgun, a revolver and explosives to Santa Fe High School on Friday, May 18, and killed eight students and two teachers.
Mass shootings of any magnitude open old wounds for Coloradans, who've grappled with how to prevent these tragedies from being repeated in the future. In the wake of the 2012 Aurora theater shooting, lawmakers approved two laws to limit high-capacity magazines to fifteen rounds and extend background checks to transactions between private individuals. They were both highly controversial; law enforcement officers protested at the Capitol, and after it was signed, 54 county sheriffs unsuccessfully sued the state on constitutional grounds.
Fast-forward to this year, when Colorado legislators wanted to pass more landmark gun legislation in an effort to take guns out of the hands of severely mentally ill people.
Law enforcement across the state, including Republican sheriffs in Arapahoe and Douglas counties, stood behind a red flag bill that officers say could have prevented the death of deputy Zackari Parrish. On New Year's Eve, veteran Matthew Riehl was suffering a breakdown and called Douglas County sheriff's deputies to his apartment, where he live-streamed the shootout and unloaded one hundred rounds of ammunition. Parrish was killed, four other deputies were injured, and two civilians were caught in the crossfire.
"I emphasize this is about acute, extreme mental health crisis; this isn't something where someone is sad or upset. This is someone who has proven to have a mental health breakdown or crisis," says Douglas County Sheriff Tony Spurlock, who was a staunch supporter of the proposed red flag bill. "We go to calls where someone is not being rational to the degree they are either hearing voices, they're having conversations with people who are not there, or they are acting outwardly violent to someone who is not even there. We see those on a regular basis. We see folks who have delusions of grandeur, and they are not in their state of mind to know where they're at or what they're doing, yet they have access to a weapon. And that makes it not only dangerous to them, but for others."
The red flag bill would have allowed law enforcement, family or household members to petition a court to temporarily remove firearms from the possession of a person deemed a danger to themselves or others. Even with law enforcement backing the bill, Republicans killed it in a Senate committee.
Representative Alec Garnett, the Democrat from District 2, which includes Denver, who introduced the bill, says he worked for months on dozens of drafts before it was finally introduced in April, two weeks before the end of session. But when it finally appeared on the floor, Republicans cried foul because they said they were blindsided and didn't have enough time to properly review the bill. The result was partisan bickering over the same pro-gun talking points that portrayed the bill as a "gun grab."
"What I learned listening to the people talking about it on the floor, there was a clear misunderstanding of what the policy actually did. I don't know if it was because people hadn't read the bill or if it was because instead of reading the bill they were reading off talking points given to them," Garnett says. "The amount of due process in the bill that was used was unprecedented, and if you were to understand the timeline and evidentiary standard, you would easily be able to dispel those types of examples."
Republican leadership in the House and Senate either did not return calls for comment or declined to comment.
In the wake of the Santa Fe High School shooting and seemingly no end in sight for mass shootings in this country, there could be renewed momentum to rethink the red flag bill before January, when the next legislative session convenes, especially if Democrats maintain control of, at least, the House and the governor's mansion this November. Garnett, who is running unopposed for his House seat, says that he is considering a second attempt at red flag legislation in 2019.
Even though the red flag bill was shot down this year, Garnett says he doesn't see that as a failure. Seeing the state's first red flag proposal clear the House on its first try was a huge win. And depending on how the November elections shake out, it may even have a chance in the Senate.
"It was a humongous achievement. I don't think anyone thought legislation that had the word 'gun' had bipartisan support and as much support from law enforcement as this bill did," Garnett says. "It just takes time for these complicated policies to make their way through the [legislative] process."
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