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'Probably All Of These Cases Have To Do With Mental Health,' Says Researcher Analyzing Colorado's Extreme Risk Law

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A new Colorado gun law has been divisive from the start. Now, a group of researchers is analyzing how it has been used in its first year.

In requests for extreme risk protection orders filed last year, petitioners described individuals who have threatened suicide, intimate partner violence, and shootings at schools and workplaces, according to preliminary data analysis by researchers at the University of Colorado. Colorado’s Extreme Risk Protection Order (ERPO) law, which took effect in January of last year, enables petitioners to ask for orders to prohibit individuals who appear to pose a significant risk to themselves or others from possessing guns.

Over the past few years, these types of laws have become more common; at least 17 states have an ERPO-type law on the books. In Colorado, this legislation has been extremely controversial from the start, primarily due to battles over gun rights. Many Colorado sheriffs and county commissioners initially said they would not enforce the law; some believed it would be abused, others said it would be dangerous for law enforcement to carry out these orders.

Researchers with the Firearm Injury Prevention Initiative at the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus are in the process of analyzing court documents to better understand how the law has been used or misused. State records show that over 100 ERPO petitions were filed in 2020. Due to a lag in accessing court records pertaining to those cases, their analysis is complete for the first half of the year only.

“I think we're seeing that it's used for a mix of circumstances and often within an individual, there's both threats to themselves and to other people,” said Dr. Emmy Betz, the lead researcher. “Someone who's threatening to kill his wife and then kill himself, for example...What we're seeing is that there are cases where I think people would agree. ‘Yeah, that sounds like a pretty bad situation. And that person needs some help’.”

‘Probably all these cases have to do with mental health’

It is not possible to determine the frequency with which ERPO cases involve a person with a diagnosed mental illness because submitting a full mental health history is not a required part of the paperwork, although some petitioners do include mental health-related information.

Still, in the narratives laid out in the petitions, the research team is seeing a smaller number of cases involving psychosis or delusions but many with factors like substance abuse and challenging life events.

“So somebody can be having a mental health issue but not have a diagnosis of clinical depression, for example,” Betz said. “So in that sense, I would say probably all of these cases have to do with mental health because they are all cases where someone is currently in a situation where they are not safe to have access to lethal weapons, whether it's because they have unstable clinical depression or because they just got fired and they're going through a divorce and they're abusing alcohol or drugs.”

Some examples of misuse

Researchers found a few obvious instances of misuse in the first half of 2020. In one case, a woman filed an ERPO petition in Larimer County against a police officer who had shot and killed her son in 2017.

The Northern Colorado-based gun rights group, Rally For Our Rights pointed to this petition as an example of misuse. “This is the reality of how easily abused Colorado’s Red Flag ERPO law has already been in the 14 days since it became law,” Lesley Hollywood, the group’s founder, wrote in a blog post.

The judge denied the order because the petitioner and officer were not related. Only family members, household members or law enforcement can file ERPO requests.

Betz said that judges have denied orders due to lack of information or incorrect jurisdiction — cases in which misuse is possible but unclear.

“So there's no evidence that there's been sort of confiscation of people's guns inappropriately.

And I think that's a really important message that this law is. We have no evidence that it's being abused in the way people were worried about it,” Betz said.

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