In a lengthy statement posted to Facebook on Friday — the same day Gov. Jared Polis signed the so-called “red flag bill” into law — Eagle County Sheriff James van Beek strongly expressed his opposition to HB 1177, the state’s new Extreme Risk Protection Orders law.
The law, which allows family members and law enforcement officials to petition a judge to allow for the confiscation of firearms from someone deemed a danger to themselves or others, was backed in testimony to the legislature by Vail Police Chief Dwight Henninger and received favorable votes from both local state lawmakers — Sen. Kerry Donovan, D-Vail, and local prosecutor and state Rep. Dylan Roberts, D-Avon.
Van Beek tepidly supported the proposal last year before it was killed in a Senate committee. This year, with Democrats regaining control of the Senate by a slim margin, it passed 18-17 and was signed into law by Polis on Friday.
“I guess in general concept I support it as a tool,” van Beek told the Vail Daily last year. “I have some reservations because it really comes in on peoples’ rights, so I have some hesitation with that. I’m somewhat comfortable with the concept that it’s consistently reviewed by the courts on a regular basis.”
Concerns over constitutional rights
That comfort level for
van Beek clearly went away with this year’s version of the bill, although this
is his first official statement on the red flag bill during the current
legislative session. The Vail Daily has been requesting a comment from the
sheriff since March 6. His primary concern with the current version of the law
is that it violates the U.S. Constitution.
Van Beek also now opposes the method of granting and executing an
“Removing the guns in
a constitutionally questionable manner, without notice, denying the accused the
ability to defend charges, then requiring medical services that are not
available, in order to reinstate private property rights, afterward, is like
putting a Band-Aid on the probability of a wound, and not allowing its removal
until an injury has occurred,” van Beek wrote in his 3,100-plus word Facebook statement. “In
other words, the entire process is ludicrous.”
Van Beek compares the current law to Steven Spielberg’s 2002 science fiction thriller “Minority Report” in which Tom Cruise plays a police officer in charge of a PreCrime unit that tries to stop suspects from committing crimes based on the predictions of psychics.
“If a person is truly in a mental crisis, this aggressive approach will create even greater stress, possibly resulting in a violent overreaction, as their personal property has been taken, without a crime ever having been committed, and done so with no warning or ability to defend themselves against the charges, making the new standard … guilty until proven innocent!” van Beek writes.
Henninger, who also testified in support of the law last year, referenced a West Vail bar shooter who had his guns returned to him by a judge despite numerous warning signs before he ultimately opened fire in 2009, killing one and wounding several others.
Mixed law enforcement reaction
Van Beek, who says more
than half the sheriffs in Colorado oppose the law, did not respond when asked
if he attempted to have his concerns addressed during the legislative process
over the last few months.
The bill has the
support of numerous law enforcement officials, including Henninger and Republican
Sheriff Tony Spurlock, who lost a deputy in Douglas County to a mentally ill
man whom family members had repeatedly warned police about. The law is named
after that slain Douglas County Sheriff’s Deputy, Zach Parrish.
County District Attorney George Brauchler drew serious heat from the right when he supported last year’s bill while
unsuccessfully running first for governor and then for attorney general. He
flipped on this year’s version of the bill, opposing it in legislative
testimony. Democrat Phil Weiser, who beat Brauchler for AG, supports the
current red flag law.
The law was sponsored
by Democratic state Rep. Tom Sullivan, whose son Alex was killed in the 2012
Aurora theater shooting by a man that mental health professionals had serious
concerns about before he opened fire, killing 12 and injuring 70.
“It’s been 351 Friday’s since Alex was murdered. I know how this is going to save lives and I know how hard everybody has worked these past 351 Fridays,” Sullivan said. “I struggle with the price that we paid to get where we are today. We still have more work to do.”
Last year’s version of
the bill was sponsored by former Republican state Rep. Cole Wist, who lost his
seat last fall due in part to opposition from gun-rights groups. This year,
besides Sullivan, the bill was again sponsored by Majority Leader Alec Garnett, D-Denver.
“This is a moment of
progress. Today, we did something that was difficult and that is going to save
lives,” House Majority Leader Garnett said in a
press release. “We are a state and
country that counts on officials to uphold the rule of law.
“We have come a long
way in this state since Columbine, and this is a law that will hopefully
prevent a future Columbine or help prevent a future family from going through a
According to House Democrats, 14 states have
enacted ERPO laws (California, Connecticut, Delaware, Florida, Illinois,
Indiana, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, Oregon, Rhode Island,
Vermont and Washington). They claim that at least 29 other states and
Washington, D.C. have considered ERPO laws, and the U.S. Senate held a hearing in March.