Stage set for new gun debate as updated red flag bill is filed

Last Updated by Brittany Freeman on

The Colorado General Assembly will consider a new red flag measure to create a legal method to remove firearms from people deemed to be an extreme risk to themselves or others.

A similar bill failed in a Senate committee last year after opponents cited concerns about due process.

Like the 2018 legislation, the extreme risk protection order bill announced Thursday is named for fallen Douglas county sheriff’s deputy Zackari Parrish III, who was murdered on duty in late 2017 by Matthew Riehl, a veteran diagnosed with mental illness whose erratic behavior was known to law enforcement. Police then shot and killed Riehl.

Riehl’s family had previously sought help from law enforcement, and his mother told Rocky Mountain PBS in an exclusive interview last year she believes a red flag law could have prevented the incident that cost both her son and Parrish their lives.

At a news conference Thursday, Rep. Alec Garnett announced legislation that would allow family members or law enforcement to petition the court to order temporary removal of firearms from someone thought to be an extreme risk to themselves or others. A full hearing would then be scheduled within 14 days, and at that point a judge would be able to order a mental health evaluation and restrict the individual from accessing the seized firearms for up to 364 days.

That 364-day time period doubles the amount of removal time proposed in the 2018 legislation. Another change from the previous bill requires the court to appoint an attorney for the individual when the petition for an extreme risk protection petition is filed. 

Another key difference: the 2019 bill is sponsored only by Democrats, who took a full majority in the legislature in the November election. Cole Wist, a Republican who co-sponsored the measure in last year’s session, lost his reelection bid in November.

Wist tweeted Thursday he does not support the updated version of the bill due to the longer time periods and what he called “the ill-advised shifting of the burden of proof onto the person seeking to restore their rights” if that person seeks to have the order terminated. The prior bill put the burden of proof at termination hearings on the person who petitioned for the protection order.

But Douglas County’s Republican sheriff said he continues to stand behind the red flag proposal, believing his deputy might still be alive if such a law had been in place before his deadly interaction with a heavily-armed and disturbed Matthew Riehl.

 “This is about saving lives,” Sheriff Tony Spurlock said. “It temporarily removes the firearms from these people. Once they are cared for and treated, they have the opportunity and the applications available in this law to return the property to them.”

A handful of other states have passed similar legislation, including Florida, which enacted a red flag law in the wake of the murders at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School one year ago. A federal school safety report prepared after that incident recommended states adopt extreme risk protection order laws "that incorporate an appropriate evidentiary standard to temporarily restrict firearms access by individuals found to be a danger to themselves or others."

Newly-elected state representative Tom Sullivan is among the sponsors of Colorado's 2019 legislation. Sullivan’s son Alex was murdered in the Aurora theater shooting in 2012. When asked by a reporter if he was disappointed no Republican legislators joined in proposing the red flag legislation, Rep. Sullivan delivered an impassioned response.

"I’m not doing this for Alex and my family, I’m doing it for yours. Because this is as bad as you think it is," Sullivan said. "Watching your child’s body drop into the ground is as bad as it gets. And I’m going to do everything I can to make sure that none of you have to do that, and I don’t care what party you belong to.”

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Insight with John Ferrugia is in-depth, independent and incisive. John and a team of investigative journalists present thoroughly researched stories of significance to Colorado.