Feb 28, 2023 - News

What to know about Colorado's "red flag" law as state ponders changes

Red flag cases filed in Colorado
Data: CPR; Chart: Axios Visuals

Colorado's tragic history of mass shootings led state lawmakers to a litany of new laws designed to stem gun violence.

  • Chief among them is a 2020 law that lets judges seize firearms from people considered a danger to themselves or others.

Yes, but: The "red flag" law is not working as intended.

  • It allows a family member, close associate or law enforcement officer to petition a judge for a temporary hold on someone possessing or buying firearms. A judge typically issues a 14-day ban and can extend it to a year if requested.

Why it matters: Making it harder to obtain firearms and keeping them from dangerous people are driving a new package of gun restrictions put forward by the Democratic majority at the state Capitol.

By the numbers: Colorado judges ordered 168 people to surrender their guns for at least two weeks through mid-November. That's 61% of the 359 extreme risk protection orders filed, Axios Denver found in a review of data published by Colorado Public Radio.

  • A year-long seizure was more difficult to obtain, coming just 47% of the time.
  • The cases primarily involved risk to others, followed by self-harm and 30 cases of threats of public violence.

Zoom in: A deeper look at the filings shows vast disparities that may be undermining the law.

  • Denver police filed 88 red flag cases — more than half of all those from law enforcement — while agencies in 40 of the state's 64 counties filed none.
  • Colorado's usage rate is significantly lower than other states with similar laws, an AP investigation found.
  • In more than a quarter of the cases, mostly filed by family members, the request didn't include an explicit threat of violence or misuse of a firearm and led to dismissals.

Between the lines: A driving factor behind the inconsistent use of the law is political ideology.

  • In El Paso, where leaders declared themselves a Second Amendment sanctuary and the Club Q shooting took place last year, law enforcement agencies filed just two petitions, despite being the state's largest county.
  • The inconsistencies also relate to the broad discretion granted to judges, says Chris Knoepke, assistant professor at the University of Colorado School of Medicine. "All of these standards are all over the map, and there's no checklist," Knoepke told CPR.
  • At least 19 states have similar laws, according to the Trace.

Details: Beyond the numbers, the "red flag" protection orders to seize a person's firearms are startling.

  • In one, a sheriff's deputy is accused of planning to ambush and kill his lieutenant.
  • A Denver man painted on his car, "I'm going to kill them."
  • A person with more than 60 firearms allegedly talked about hiding bodies.
  • 59 firearms and 50,000 ammunition rounds were taken from a man who had been arrested for impersonating a sheriff's deputy.

Of note: The court filings highlight alarming situations that may have escalated to violence if the legal system didn't intervene.

The other side: The records also point to shortcomings. In Costilla County, a woman alleged in documents her former partner made threats, including to commit "suicide by cop."

  • When she took her case to local authorities, it went nowhere because the local sheriff didn't support the law.
  • A local judge quickly rejected her individual petition to seize the partner's firearms.

What they're saying: A Jefferson County woman who successfully petitioned the court for an order after Lakewood Police declined to get involved said it's not an easy process.

  • "I'm not a lawyer, but compared to the average person, I'm fairly knowledgeable of laws and the judicial process," she told CPR. And even so, "it was just very, very lonely."
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