Red-flag legislation, which would create a framework for temporarily taking guns away from those considered a danger to themselves and others, is making its way through the Colorado legislature. It's already been approved by the state House of Representatives, and while a Senate vote expected yesterday, March 25, was delayed, the bill is scheduled for more floor work in the chamber beginning at 9 a.m. today.
Democrats are expected to continue supporting the idea, while Republicans have been reacting with scorn. But one prominent member of the GOP — entrepreneur Victor Mitchell, who finished second in the 2018 Republican gubernatorial primary behind nominee Walker Stapleton — backs what is formally known as HB 19-1177. And like bill sponsor Tom Sullivan, father of Aurora theater shooting victim Alex Sullivan, he has very personal reasons for why he feels such a measure is needed. When his daughter was sixteen, she made an attempt on her own life — and he sees red-flag legislation as a way of potentially reducing what has become an epidemic of suicides in Colorado.
Mitchell's story has an infinitely happier ending. His daughter got the mental health care she needed, and he says she's doing well today. Meanwhile, he took a position on the board of directors for Mental Health Colorado, whose interim president and CEO, Nancy VanDeMark, is among the most vocal advocates for HB 19-1177.
As for Mitchell's backing of the bill, he says, "To me, it's a matter of balancing Second Amendment protections and the protection of law enforcement with families that are in the midst of a mental health crisis and trying to save a loved one from suicide."
The issue, he adds, "is incredibly important — and it's very important to our family's situation as well."
The Mitchell family first confronted the issue nearly a decade ago. "Our daughter was around sixteen, and she developed an eating disorder," he recalls. "She hid it from her family. I had no idea. My wife, Amy, had no idea. We just noticed that she was losing weight and barely eating."
The condition "led to anxiety and depression, and then suicidal thoughts," he goes on. "She attempted suicide at least one time," by taking an overdose of pills.
According to Mitchell, "Any family that's ever been through something similar to ours knows the level of stress this creates and the impact on the whole family. We were on pins and needles and felt helpless. But fortunately, we were able to get the care she needed in time."
He doesn't downplay the obstacles that had to be overcome after treatment began. "That's why mental health care is so challenging: Much of the treatment is trial and error. Some people need in-patient care. Some people need out-patient care. And every person's brain chemistry is so unique that rarely, if ever, do you get the appropriate dosage of medication on the first try. There's a great deal of back-and-forth to get it right. It took us several years."
In the meantime, Victor and Amy made the decision to "remove all the firearms from our home in case she was to act impulsively — because most suicides by young people are done impulsively. Many don't even intend to commit suicide. It's actually a call for help. But even cases where someone wasn't trying to commit suicide may result in a death, especially with firearms, which are almost 100 percent effective."
Eventually, doctors hit on the right combination of meds to help Mitchell's daughter, and today, he says, "she's thriving. She got a computer science degree from CU, where she was the head of the Women in Computing group, and today she's a schoolteacher and doing great. She's on anti-depressants and probably will be for the rest of her life. But she shows that there's help for those who have a loved one in the midst of a mental health crisis. It takes time and persistence, but there really is hope."
The more Mitchell learned about suicide risk, the more he became convinced that red-flag legislation offers important options to people who find themselves in his family's scenario. He openly advocated on behalf of a similar bill introduced last year while running for governor, and he's doing so again in 2019 despite his belief that it can be improved in three significant areas.
He'd like to see a clause that would force anyone found to have made a false or unfounded charge against another person to bear the cost of attorney's fees, believes the standard for temporarily prohibiting a person from possessing firearms should be raised from a preponderance of the evidence to the stricter clear-and-convincing-evidence level, and argues that a person targeted by an access hearing should be informed in advance, not after the fact.
This last policy is controversial, Mitchell concedes, since some health care experts fear that learning about an access hearing could actually inspire a suicide attempt by a person at risk of self-harm. But he points out that "our justice system is based on notice, where each side has ample time to present their case — and I don't feel we should disavow these norms to circumvent the possibility."
That Mitchell, the founder and CEO of Lead Funding, is taking such a public stand on red-flag legislation has nothing to do with future political aspirations. He bluntly states that "I have no interest in ever running for office again." But, he stresses, "I love Colorado and hope to make a difference in our state — and I empathize tremendously with families in this kind of situation."
In contrast, he expresses frustration with the reluctance of his fellow Republicans to think for themselves on issues such as red-flag legislation. "It all comes down to being independent," he says. "We've got a lot of people who can regurgitate thinking points and a lot of party orthodoxy, and who aren't deep thinkers."
This problem afflicts Democrats as well, he emphasizes. "They're just as bad on the left-hand side. If you put a hard-left Democrat versus a hard-right Republican, the Democrat more often than not is going to win given the current makeup of the state, but that doesn't mean it's the best person to represent us, and it doesn't represent the two-thirds of the population that considers itself moderate or independent. There's virtually no representation for moderates in our state. We have extreme right and extreme left — and that's a major problem not just in Colorado, but across the nation."
He's confident the red-flag bill would have been better had both parties worked together on it: "A bipartisan legislature always tends to create the best legislation, because it's not a political game but public policy." Still, he continues, "the bill should pass even if it is flawed, because we're in such a crisis, with so many suicides and such helplessness by family members trying to save their loved ones."
Keep Westword Free... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we would like to keep it that way. Offering our readers free access to incisive coverage of local news, food and culture. Producing stories on everything from political scandals to the hottest new bands, with gutsy reporting, stylish writing, and staffers who've won everything from the Society of Professional Journalists' Sigma Delta Chi feature-writing award to the Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism. But with local journalism's existence under siege and advertising revenue setbacks having a larger impact, it is important now more than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" membership program, allowing us to keep covering Denver with no paywalls.