FORT COLLINS, Colo. – A “red flag” bill that would allow Colorado law enforcement to confiscate the firearms of those deemed a risk to themselves or others is heading to Gov. Jared Polis’ desk — and Weld County’s sheriff sees it as something worth going to jail over.
To be clear, Sheriff Steve Reams doesn’t want to go to jail. He’d much rather the issues he sees with the bill be sussed out and the attention be shifted to helping those in mental health crises.
“(Going to jail is) the absolute last thing I’d like to do,” Reams said in an interview with the Coloradoan following a CNN story headlined “This Colorado sheriff is willing to go to jail rather than enforce a proposed gun law.”
“I’d much rather see this get worked out in the courts and dealt with in the courts before it ever comes to that point,” Reams told the Coloradoan. “But if and when the time comes, and this issue hasn’t been worked out in the courts, then yeah, this is the last choice that I have.”
The bill allows family, members of the household or law enforcement to petition a court to have an individual’s guns seized or surrendered. A similar bill was stifled by the Republican-controlled Senate last year. The new Democratic legislature was able to move it through, and Polis, also a Democrat, has pledged to sign the measure into law.
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“This bill will give law enforcement and families the tools that they need to stop tragedies from constantly happening and save lives,” said first-term Rep. Tom Sullivan, who sponsored the bill with House Majority Leader Alec Garnett.
Sullivan’s son, Alex, was killed on his 27th birthday in the 2012 mass shooting at an Aurora theater.
Reams could potentially face jail if a judge ordered his department to seize a person’s firearms. If Reams refused, he could face contempt of court charges.
Reams outlined concerns similar to those raised by Larimer County Sheriff Justin Smith and the Larimer County Commissioners in the lead up to the bill’s passage: It violates due process and other Constitutional rights, it takes away people’s home defense, it’s logistically difficult for sheriff’s offices that aren’t equipped to keep and return the guns, and it addresses a symptom of a mental health crises, instead of a person’s overall mental health.
“If they’re such a significant risk to themselves that they shouldn’t have a gun, my feeling is the better focus is dealing with the person,” Reams said. “So let’s look at a mental health hold or something along those lines.”
He called for instead reducing the requirements to place someone in a mental health hold, and increasing the requirements for freeing that person. State statute regarding mental health holds currently requires the person to represent an imminent danger to their self or others; Reams would like it to be closer to the lower threshold of a significant threat included in the red flag bill.
“The thought process of denying someone, or taking that object away and it being a way to make them safe, it misses the root problem,” Reams said. “Mental health is where we should be focused, and we just keep passing that buck along, keep kicking that can along, and that’s where I want to see that investment go.”
Smith didn’t endorse turning Larimer County into a so-called “Second Amendment sanctuary county” against the bill, like neighboring Weld County has declared itself, citing concerns of rule of law. He didn’t want to be seen as cherry picking what laws his department enforced.
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Reams said he saw the conflict in enforcing state law versus respecting people’s Constitutional rights — and not just the headline-grabbing right to bear arms. He cited concerns with unlawful search and seizure, due process and equal protections clauses as well.
“It turns the Fourth, the Fifth, and the 14th amendment on their heads,” he said. “It does things so backwards from what we understand about due process. Anyone who looks at this with an honest eye has to have concerns. The Second Amendment is the easy thing to say is under attack, and that’s a portion of it, but that’s not the main portion. But it doesn’t resonate in headlines to say we’re defending the 14th Amendment.”
Several law enforcement officials testified for the bill, named after Zackari Parrish, a 29-year old sheriff’s deputy in Douglas County. The husband and father was shot and killed in a New Year’s Eve 2017 shooting by a man who had exhibited increasingly erratic behavior.
Opponents say about half of the counties in the state have passed resolutions opposing the bill, symbolically declaring their counties “Second Amendment sanctuaries.”
State Attorney General Phil Weiser, a Democrat, has said sheriffs who don’t want to enforce the measure should resign. Polis, however, said on March 26 that he believes sheriffs are committed to enforcing laws approved at the Capitol. Polis also said sheriffs have discretion to decide which issues to focus on.
Reams said he wouldn’t resign in protest over the bill because he was elected to do the job of sheriff. Most of the constituent feedback he’s heard has been positive, he said.
“If I were to walk away in protest, or resign in protest, I’d be saying I’m not in it for the fight,” Reams said.
The red flag bill is the first major gun legislation to make its way through both Colorado legislative chambers since 2013, when lawmakers passed universal background checks and banned large-capacity ammunition magazines after the mass shootings in Aurora and at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut.
Thirteen other states have passed similar legislation. Florida passed its version after the 2018 Parkland school massacre.
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Contributing: The Associated Press
Follow Nick Coltrain on Twitter on @NColtrain.