In January, Colorado’s Extreme Risk Protection Order or “red flag” law takes effect, as readers of The Colorado Sun know from Jesse Paul’s recent story: “Colorado’s guidance to police on the red flag law doesn’t include what to do if someone won’t give up their guns.”
Pursuant to the new law, a family member or a member of law enforcement can ask a court to enter an order to a person who is deemed to pose a significant risk to self or others to relinquish his or her firearms immediately and not to purchase others. If the person refuses, law enforcement members can execute a search warrant for the weapons.
The impetus for these types of laws (which have been passed in 17 states and the District of Columbia) is to keep our communities and individuals safe whether they are suicidal or threatening to others.
While they are in such a situation, their ability to carry out suicide or mass killings will be significantly reduced and/or eliminated by their lack of ready access to a gun. It is too easy to kill yourself or others when the firearm is right there in your home.
According to the Giffords Law Center, 36,000 Americans are killed by guns each year, an average of 100 per day, and 100,000 are shot and injured each year.
I realize some Coloradans are concerned that this law will result in the confiscation of guns from too many citizens. However, there are many safeguards contained within the language of the law itself, including the right to have a hearing within 14 days and the ability to challenge the court’s findings.
I suggest that people wait to form an opinion until we see the kinds of cases that are raised in support of the ERPOs.
In the meantime, let me discuss what our office has been doing to increase the safety of domestic violence victims, who we know are often victims of firearms violence, particularly around the time of the arrest and charging of the offender.
This is a very dangerous time for victims and one that is significantly exacerbated by the offenders’ possession of guns.
Strikingly, according to a study released Nov. 21, 2019, by Everytown for Gun Safety, in more than half (54%) of America’s mass shootings (those killing four or more people) between 2009 and 2018, the shooter shot a current or former intimate partner or family members, including children.
Nearly three in four children killed in mass shootings were killed in domestic violence related situations. Many of these mass shooters were prohibited from possessing firearms, yet had them anyway. Research shows that the mere presence of a gun during a domestic violence incident increases homicide risk by 500%.
While in the legislature, I was proud to sponsor a bill that put some teeth into the pre-existing law that prohibited those with domestic violence convictions or protection orders entered against them from possessing or purchasing firearms.
The bill required that such a person relinquish his/her firearms and that he/she provide proof to the court within 72 hours of the entry of the protection order or order requiring relinquishment.
The offender can store firearms at the Denver Police Department or can sell or transfer them to someone who has passed a background check.
What I learned when I became District Attorney for Denver was that this law was not being enforced through the courts in a consistent manner and often, not at all. Most offenders do not readily admit to possession or access to firearms.
So several professionals in my office worked together to come up with a reasonable way to make sure that those who are convicted of domestic violence offenses or who have protection orders entered against them do not have ready access to firearms, which so often leads to tragedy.
As a result of this work, I hired a firearms relinquishment investigator in October whose job it is to research the circumstances of domestic violence offenders and follow up to make sure that the law is followed.
That investigator combs through the evidence to identify situations where guns are present and looks for creative avenues to establish firearms ownership.
These solutions can involve communicating with the victim regarding the presence of firearms, listening to 911 calls, reading police reports and others. The investigator often proactively works with victims to obtain the firearms.
He works with a senior deputy district attorney who specializes in domestic violence to make sure due process is followed and to alert the court when necessary to the situation.
The attorney can ask that relinquishment be a condition of bond, that a defendant be held in contempt of court and other legal mechanisms to achieve the goal of relinquishment.
Removing firearms as soon as a victim of domestic violence reports the abuse is critical because that person is five times more likely to be killed if the abuser has access to a gun.
Denver is the only jurisdiction in the state (and one of the only few in the country) that has a dedicated investigator doing this work. Already his track record is impressive after only a few months. Not only has this investigator successfully — and without incident — recovered in excess of 6,000 rounds of ammunition and 30 firearms from approximately a dozen offenders, he has received an outpouring of support from victims and family members.
A mother volunteered to help with the relinquishments after her son was ordered to surrender his firearms. A father wrote a thank you to us stating “hopefully he will eventually learn by his mistakes, pay for whatever damages he has caused, does his time and gets the proper mental health treatment he desperately needs.”
These family members are so grateful for the help in removing firearms from their children so as to avoid suicide or murder.
We are thrilled with the early success of our efforts, but we are acutely aware that this work can be dangerous. By working with victims, family and community members, law enforcement can better plan to create a safe environment for relinquishment.
We hope that our program can serve as a model for other communities struggling with domestic violence injuries and death and also as a reassurance to the community that laws such as ERPO can dramatically reduce suicides and gun violence in our communities.
Beth McCann was elected Denver District Attorney in 2016 and is the first woman to hold the office. Twitter: @DenverDAsOffice.
This column was originally published for The Colorado Sun. The Colorado Sun is a reader-supported news organization that covers people, places and issues of statewide interest. To sign up for free newsletters, subscribe or learn more, visit ColoradoSun.com.