Job one for Weld County Sheriff Steve Reams is to enforce the law, as he makes clear. But these days, he's juggling such duties with a flurry of media requests, both foreign and domestic.
"I'm getting calls from all over the world," Reams says. "I've been asked to do TV interviews from as far away as England."
This particular fuse was lit by his comments to CNN about HB 19-1177, commonly known as Colorado's red flag bill, which would establish a process to temporarily seize the guns of individuals deemed a danger to themselves and others. Supporters see it as a way to reduce the alarming number of suicides that take place in the state each year, in addition to potentially averting a mass tragedy such as the Aurora theater shooting; among the legislation's sponsors is Representative Tom Sullivan, whose son Alex was slain during the latter tragedy. In contrast, opponents such as Rocky Mountain Gun Owners head Dudley Brown consider it an affront to those who use firearms responsibly, as well as a slippery slope that could lead to future restrictions.
Reams, for his part, thinks the bill is unconstitutional on a number of levels and says he won't enforce it even if threatened with incarceration for his stance. CNN summarized his position in its headline: "This Colorado Sheriff Is Willing to Go to Jail Rather Than Enforce a Proposed Gun Law."
Why have journalists been so fascinated by this pledge? "I think the interest is because we always talk about what our oath means as elected officials," Reams replies, "but someone who says, 'I can't do this because it violates my oath' and is willing to accept the consequences is something the media doesn't see that often. I guess that's where the notoriety comes from."
He quickly adds, "I wasn't seeking notoriety. I did it because that's the oath I swore to."
As for Reams's problems with the bill, he acknowledges that he sees it as running afoul of the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which states that the right of the people to keep and bear arms "shall not be infringed." However, he stresses that "it's only a part of it, and probably the least significant part. The problem is that by going after someone's gun in the way it's written in the bill, it violates the Fourth, Fifth and Fourteenth amendments, too, because the person doesn't have a chance to be at the initial hearing even though it allows for the seizure of property. And that goes against everything we understand as due process in our country."
The portion of the legislation that allows the initial hearing to take place without the knowledge of the individual it targets was also cited by former Colorado gubernatorial candidate Victor Mitchell in a recent Westword interview. Mitchell backs the bill based on his experiences with his daughter, whose suicidal thoughts led him and his wife to remove all firearms from their house until treatment helped stabilize her; she's thriving today. But while Mitchell understands the reason for not giving the subject of the hearing a heads-up (some health care experts fear that learning about such a session could actually inspire an act of self-harm), he argues 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."
To Reams, such a change "would at least make the bill more in line with the Constitution, and with other red flag laws. They exist in fourteen other states, but Colorado's is different. Colorado added a wrinkle in addition to every other law that's been passed, and that's where I believe the true tipping point happened."
Even so, he feels that such legislation in general "avoids the real issue, which is the underlying problem of mental illness. These are Band-Aid fixes to the mental health crisis. They kick the can down the road, but they don't really address people with obvious mental health concerns."
Be that as it may, the bill has now passed both chambers of the General Assembly, and Governor Jared Polis is expected to sign it into law soon. Because the measure won't go into effect until January 1, 2020, Reams won't immediately be put in the position of backing up his pledge. But as he points out, "One of the penalties of violating a judge's court order could be confinement in my own jail. And I would rather go to jail than violate someone else's constitutional rights."
Avoiding the slammer entirely would be preferable, though, as he concedes: "That would be the very last option — and we're already fashioning what our response would be once this is enacted."
He's referring to a lawsuit of the sort everyone expects to be filed before Polis's ink is dry. But such a complaint could be tricky.
"Often the only way to have standing in a suit is to have been affected by the actual law," he allows. "It may be that someone has to be harmed or damaged first. That's why I said I'll go to my own jail. It could further the court process and get it into the courts that way. I'd prefer a different method, but if it gets to that, it gets to that."
In the meantime, he maintains that the feedback he's received about his stand from residents of Weld County and beyond has been "overwhelmingly positive. Even the people who are in opposition of the message I'm trying to provide, when I get a chance to dialogue with them, understand that this is more than a Second Amendment issue, and they can at least acknowledge concerns with other constitutional violations."
In the meantime, Polis has inspired a quizzical recall effort over his advocacy on behalf of progressive policies such as the red flag bill. Moreover, there have been rumblings that Weld County might be the site of another effort to secede from the State of Colorado, as happened unsuccessfully back in 2013. But Reams isn't ready to jump onto either of these trains.
"I understand there are citizens in our state who are upset about what is going on at our state legislature and the agenda our governor seems to be supporting," he says. "But I don't know if it's effective to engage in a recall effort against the governor. I'm not engaged in that process, and I certainly don't want to see another effort to support a 51st state. I'm a proud citizen of Colorado, and I just want what's best for the citizens of Colorado and my county. And if we enact laws that are constitutional, that gets us back to where we need to be."
He emphasizes that he's just one of many officials who will make enacting the red flag legislation difficult. "There are 32 counties that have declared sanctuary against it to some degree, and I would say there are probably more Colorado sheriffs in agreement with me that this bill is poorly written and unconstitutional. It's definitely over 50 percent. Maybe a 70-30 split. We don't have a firm count, but it's somewhere in there."
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