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Rep. Lois Court: Fees for gun background checks could help fund mental health services

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Since the tragic mass shootings in Newtown, Connecticut left twenty children dead, there has been a renewed discussion on gun policy in Colorado as lawmakers prep for the legislative session. And we now have details on one idea that links the debates around gun access and mental health. Representative Lois Court says she would like to impose a fee on gun owners for mandatory background checks -- and use the funding directly for mental health services.

On Monday, we reported that the Democrats were considering some kind of policy for mandated background check fees. This idea has been pushed to the forefront in large part because of the huge surge in those seeking firearms in the last few weeks since the elementary school shooting in Connecticut.

The increased interest in guns in Colorado has gotten so intense that the Colorado Bureau of Investigation has in fact struggled to meet the demands. And CBI officials have said that with so many people seeking background checks to purchase firearms, staff are working overtime and others who don't usually do these checks are temporarily doing this work to help meet the needs, the Denver Post has reported. The state's Department of Public Safety is expected to ask lawmakers for a supplemental $500,000 appropriation to address this problem.

Court, a Democrat who represents parts of Denver, tells us that this surge in background checks only makes it more obvious that a mandated fee for those looking to buy guns could be part of the solution -- especially if the funds were put to good use.

"My concept is to ask law-abiding gun owners who are sometimes perceived as part of the problem...to be perceived as part of the solution," she says. "I'm trying to create a nexus here that I think could make some sense as far as providing ways to fund mental health."

Court emphasizes that she's in the very early stages of exploring the idea and talking to relevant experts and colleagues on the matter.

"I'm just doing my research to understand this better," she says.

Currently, these background checks are free and as Boulder Representative Claire Levy pointed out, most other statewide checks for licenses do require fees.

Court says this kind of idea has been discussed for years, but never too seriously until now. And since the Connecticut shooting, she says, it has been clear to her that the time may be right to bring the concept together in a bill.

"Mental health is a huge problem in our society and I completely agree that having mental health addressed is essential," she says. "I completely acknowledge that we don't have enough money for it. And you talk to responsible, law-abiding gun owners and they're gonna say they don't want guns in the wrong hands either."

She continues, "How can we help them help the issue?... How can we make this be something that's a win-win?"

Governor John Hickenlooper recently unveiled a proposal for an overhaul in the state's mental health services, which had been in the works for months since the Aurora theater shooting over the summer, but had added significance with the announcement coming so shortly after the Newtown massacre.

In his proposal, he will be asking legislators for additional funding.

Court says she is still researching how much gun background checks might cost and where that funding could be best used in the state's mental health services.

While gun-related legislation is typically very polarized and partisan, Court says she hopes this could get more broad support.

"I certainly will have conversations with my Republican colleagues about this," she says.

More from our Politics archive: "Rep. Rhonda Fields on push to repeal death penalty: "An insult to crime victims""

Follow Sam Levin on Twitter at @SamTLevin. E-mail the author at Sam.Levin@Westword.com.

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