Vail police, politicians support law that would allow temporary confiscation of guns from those with mental health issues
DENVER — Vail Police Chief Dwight Henninger this week pushed for the passage of a proposed law that would allow police to temporarily confiscate the firearms and ammunition of someone deemed by a judge to represent a risk of harm to the public or themselves.
“Right now, if an officer goes out on a (call of a) suicidal party and doesn’t have enough to take them into custody for a mental-health evaluation, or even if he does, there’s no way to legally seize any firearms that are there,” Henninger said.
The Deputy Zackari Parrish III Violence Prevention Act, or House Bill 1436, is named for a Douglas County deputy shot to death on New Year’s Eve by a man with a known history of mental illness who had been flagged to police by his parents and educators.
From Douglas County to Parkland, Florida, mass shooters with mental health histories have prompted a flurry of so-called “red flag” laws that allow police or family members to petition a judge for an Extreme Risk Protection Order to temporarily remove weapons while the owner gets treatment.
According to Henninger, who testified before the state House Judiciary Committee on Tuesday, May 1, four states had red-flag laws at the beginning of the year, and now there are eight, with more than 20 others considering such laws. He cites several local examples where the law may have saved lives in recent years.
“(Richard) Rossi (Moreau) is another example,” Henninger said, referring to a Vail man convicted of murder after opening fire at a West Vail bar in 2009. “We took his weapons at one point in time, and the judge gave them back. I’m not sure we had any warning signs to him shooting up the bar, but he’s another example.”
And while mass shootings are extremely rare in Vail and surrounding Eagle County, Henninger said suicide is becoming more common.
“There are a number of examples of folks who were here for one reason or another and then ended up committing suicide that we’ve had contact with,” Henninger said. “That’s the bigger deal than some active shooter type of circumstance like a school.”
‘It will make a difference’
Eagle County is coming off a record number of suicide deaths in 2017, and state health officials say that of the 1,156 people who commit suicide in 2016, the majority (52 percent) used a gun. They also say using a firearm is by far the most lethal means of committing suicide.
Andrew Romanoff, president and CEO of Mental Health Colorado, said, “For most folks, there is no going back from a gunshot. This bill, if it passes, is not going to stop every tragedy, it’s not going to stop every mass shooting and it’s not even going to stop every suicide, but it will make a difference. We can’t wait for next year.”
Sponsored by Reps. Alec Garnett, D-Denver, and Cole Wist, R-Centennial, the law’s temporary Extreme Risk Protective Order launches a civil process that would require a second hearing within seven days to determine if there’s clear and convincing evidence to extend the order up to 182 days.
“This bill has bipartisan support and has been working in red states like Indiana and blue states like California for years,” Eagle County Rep. Dylan Roberts said. “I have heard overwhelming support from constituents of (House District) 26 for months asking for this idea to be brought forward. Personally, as an attorney, prosecutor and legislator, I believe it strikes the right balance between one’s Second Amendment rights and preventing Coloradans from hurting themselves or others.”
A House Judiciary Committee member, Roberts voted in favor as the bill passed by a 7-4 margin.
Republican El Paso County District Attorney Dan May, citing a Colorado Springs shooting in 2015, and Republican Arapahoe County District Attorney George Brauchler, citing the Douglas County ambush, both testified in support of the law on Tuesday.
Opponents of the Bill
The National Rifle Association has recently indicated tepid support for red-flag laws, but the hardline, Colorado-based Rocky Mountain Gun Owners group has signaled staunch opposition on its Facebook page.
Opponents of the bill, including Republican Rep. Patrick Neville — a 1999 Columbine High School massacre survivor and gun-rights advocate — cited concerns that the legislation gives the government far too much power to infringe on citizens’ Second Amendment rights.
Republican Eagle County Sheriff James van Beek echoed some of those same sentiments but generally supports the law.
“I guess in general concept I support it as a tool,” van Beek said. “I have some reservations because it really comes in on peoples’ rights, so I have some hesitation with that. I’m somewhat comfortable with the concept that it’s consistently reviewed by the courts on a regular basis.
“In concept, I agree with it, but (am concerned with) just how they’re going to put it together so that it doesn’t give too much authority for law enforcement to just walk in and make a simple allegation and take away somebody’s rights.”
If the bill now passes a full-floor vote in the Democrat-controlled House in the last full week of the current legislative session, then it faces a much tougher battle in the Republican-controlled Senate.
Participants attached protest signs to ski poles and hockey sticks in Vail Saturday at the 2020 Women’s March.