Colorado Legislature gives nearly final OK to so-called ‘red flag’ gun control bid after Aurora cops make 11th-hour plea to stop it

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State Sen. Rhonda Fields, D-Aurora, in the well of the state Senate making an appeal to approved House Bill 1177, a so-called red-flag gun control bill. SCREEN IMAGE

AURORA | Despite opposition by about half of the state’s elected sheriffs and some rank-and-file police, including those in Aurora, the state legislature approved a controversial “red-flag” gun control bill Thursday, making it closer to becoming law.

The move set up a fresh round of recall threats against lawmakers who supported the measure, reminiscent of moves made by Republicans in 2013.

Aurora Democratic State Sen. Rhonda Fields spoke yesterday before the Senate vote, countering opposition about the measure’s lack of due process.

“This is not about taking away anybody’s liberty,” Fields said,  it’s about empowering Colorado resident and police to get guns away from people in mental crisis. She said gun rights are already restricted and this gives police a tool to protect families and the public.

The so-called “red flag bill” designed to temporarily remove firearms from persons deemed by a court to be a risk to themselves or others.

House Bill 19-1177 passed on final reading in the state Senate on a 18-17 party line vote. Democratic Senate President Leroy Garcia controversially voted against the bill, the only Democrat in the state Senate to do so.

The bill heads to the House for consideration of Senate amendments before it reaches the desk of Democratic Gov. Jared Polis, who has pledged to sign it into law.

Republicans defeated similar legislation in 2018 before they lost control of the Senate in last November’s elections. They fought this year’s bill, which places the burden on gun owners to prove in court they do not pose a risk if they want to recover firearms that have been seized.

Florida passed its own extreme risk protection order law after the 2018 Parkland school massacre, and 12 other states have also done so.

Colorado’s legislation would allow family or law enforcement to seek a court order to have guns seized if they believe the owner is a threat. If approved, a subsequent court hearing would be held to determine whether to extend the seizure up to 364 days.

The bill also would require anyone whose guns are seized to prove that he or she no longer poses a risk in order to get them back. Republicans fought to shift that burden back to those who sought the protection order.

Garcia did not participate in Thursday’s debate leading up to the vote. But he revealed his decision to vote “no” to The Pueblo Chieftain earlier this week.

In 2013, voters in Garcia’s Pueblo district recalled Democratic Sen. Angela Giron for supporting gun-control measures adopted after the 2012 Aurora movie theater shootings.

Voter recalled a second Democrat over gun control in 2013, and a third resigned rather than face a recall.

Flying in the face of Aurora Police Department brass and the City Council, the Aurora police union on Thursday announced it opposition to the measure. 

In a Facebook post published around 9 a.m. on Thursday, the Aurora Police Association wrote it is joining the Denver police union in condemning the bill, which would allow family members and law enforcement officials to petition courts to strip weapons from people deemed to be a threat to themselves or others.

Our members have clearly expressed to us their concerns about the constitutionality of such legislation and are deeply concerned about the lack of due process in the current bill,” the Aurora union wrote on Facebook. “Police officers understand the value in addressing the real problem, the mental health of individuals in crisis. The problem cannot be successfully addressed by restricting access to tools while ignoring the mental health considerations.”

Judy Lutkin, president of the APA, said an “overwhelming number” of union members have voiced their distaste for the proposed legislation.

The union did not take a formal vote, Lutkin said, but accumulated opinions over the past several weeks.

She said the union, in part, was waiting for a final version of the bill to be solidified before forming a stance on the measure.

“It was partially because we were waiting for the final bill,” Lutkin said. “It also took us a bit of time to get a feel from our membership about how they felt about it.

“Obviously taking guns away from people is a difficult thing for police officers, and there is no mental health component in the bill. It is a valuable thing to make sure people who are mentally ill don’t have guns, but in the process of that you have to deal with the people — not just the tools.”

The union’s position is in contrast to that of Aurora police chiefs, who urged the Aurora City Council to formally support the measure in late February. Council members heeded the department’s request to formally grant the bill a thumbs up.

“Mass shootings by offenders in some stage of mental crisis are certainly one reason to pursue such legislation,” APD Deputy Chief Paul O’Keefe told city lawmakers at a council study session. “Perhaps more to the point, nationally, in 2016, there were 44,965 suicides; approximately 50 percent of those were committed with a firearm. In Colorado, there were 1,168 suicides in 2016. Being able to reduce those numbers by removing the tool most used in almost half of the incidents can go a long way toward saving lives and encouraging people to get the help they need.”

Lutkin said she doesn’t believe the union’s contrarian stance will hinder the organization’s relationship with the chief’s office.

“I feel like there’s a pretty good relationship between the union and the chief’s office. We listen to each other, and they’ve heard our concerns,” she said. “We continue to have conversations with them … we don’t agree on everything, but I feel like our chief’s office is supportive of the APA, so this doesn’t change any of that.”

More than half of the Aurora Police Department’s some 700 commissioned police officers are union members, according to Lutkin.

Centennial state Rep. Tom Sullivan, who’s son Alex died in the theater shooting, is the bill’s primary sponsor. 

George Brauchler, the district attorney for the 18th Judicial District who prosecuted the Aurora theater shooting case, has vehemently opposed Sullivan’s measure, regularly sparring with its supporters on social media.

Brauchler supported a previous version of so-called “red flag” legislation introduced in the 2018 legislative session. That bill died in a Republican-led Senate committee late in the session.

The union for the Denver Police Department, the Denver Police Protective Association, formalized its opposition to the so-called red flag measure in a press release issued Wednesday.