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Sheriff opposition to Colorado's red flag gun law under scrutiny after Club Q shooting

Gun safety and suicide prevention brochures sit on display next to guns for sale at a local retail gun store in Montrose, Colorado.
Brennan Linsley/AP
Gun safety and suicide prevention brochures sit on display next to guns for sale at a local retail gun store in Montrose, Colorado.

The Club Q mass shooting in Colorado Springs that left five people dead and many more injured is raising questions about the state’s red flag gun law and the sheriffs who oppose it.

The law is meant to prohibit people who are a threat to themselves or others from possessing a firearm. That could include the suspect in the Club Q shooting. Last year, he allegedly threatened his mother with a homemade bomb, several weapons and ammunition. A standoff with sheriff’s deputies ensued.

Both law enforcement and relatives can file red flag orders, though it’s not clear if an order was issued in this instance; the case has been sealed. But in El Paso County, where the nightclub shooting occurred, Sheriff Bill Elder has been a vocal opponent of the law.

“We’re going to be taking away personal property from people without having due process,” he told KOAA News when red flag legislation was moving through the Colorado statehouse in 2019.

Elder said his department would “not pursue these on our own,” but that his deputies would honor court orders filed by others.

According to state records, 14 temporary extreme risk protection orders have been issued in El Paso County (population 737,867) since the red flag law took effect at the beginning of 2020. The temporary orders prohibit someone from possessing a firearm until a hearing is scheduled within 14 days. That hearing could lead to the loss of their firearm for one year. A handful of longer-term orders were also granted. For comparison, in Denver County, (population 711,463), 93 temporary extreme risk protection orders were issued.

The sheriff’s resistance is in sharp contrast to conversations among public health experts who say red flag laws are a powerful tool in addressing gun violence.

“Without invoking the criminal justice system, without waiting until a violent event occurs, these laws allow for an intervention that does a very important thing, which is to temporarily dispossess someone of their firearms through a process that allows for court involvement and due process protections,” said Shannon Frattaroli with the Center for Gun Violence Solutions at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.

Frattaroli and other experts continue to push back against the argument that the law violates constitutional rights.

“There are many laws that have been found not to violate due process that are much more concerning from a due process position,” Jennifer Pomeranz, a public health attorney with New York University, told KUNC last year. Her research points to examples such as laws that remove children from unfit parents or those that involuntarily commit people.

Still, the constitutionality of red flag laws has been a sticking point for multiple sheriffs and counties in Colorado. In 2019, El Paso County adopted a resolution to “actively resist” a red flag gun law. The resolution declares the county will not direct resources to help enforce the law.

Weld County, too, declared itself a “Second Amendment Sanctuary” around the same time.

“As elected officials for this county, it is our responsibility as a board to make sure we protect the rights of our residents,” said Weld County Commissioner Perry Buck, quoted in a 2019 press release. “And by speaking out against bad legislation and speaking up for our residents’ rights, I believe we are doing just that,”

Weld County Sheriff Steve Reams shares those views. He told CNN he would rather be incarcerated than enforce Colorado’s red flag law.

Sheriffs that oppose gun control measures are not unique to Colorado’s rural communities. Emily Farris, a political science professor at Texas Christian University, recently surveyed hundreds of sheriffs nationwide with her colleague Mirya Holman and The Marshall Project.

“Sheriffs as a whole are pretty resistant to stricter gun control measures. And what ends up happening is you have individual sheriffs deciding whether or not their county will participate,” Farris said.

She points out sheriffs are independently elected and hold distinctive power. “And so they don't feel the same kind of accountability that a police chief would to a mayor, to a county, to a city manager.”

Their role as elected officials places sheriffs who oversee America’s more rural and conservative communities in a difficult spot, said Zoe Nemerever, a political science professor at Utah State University.

“The position of being a sheriff is inherently difficult to navigate because of being held accountable by voters and then having to be faithful to the state legislature,” Nemerever said. “And I think it's important for voters, journalists, residents, everybody to realize that when it comes to evaluating what elected officials or bureaucrats are doing, to think of the incentive structures that shape their decisions.”

In other words, when sheriffs don’t follow red flag laws that the state legislature passes, is it because they are incentivized to do what voters want rather than what the law requires?

I wear many hats in KUNC's newsroom as an executive producer, editor and reporter. My work focuses on inequality, the systems of power that entrench it, and the people who are disproportionately affected. I help reporters in my newsroom to also uncover these angles and elevate unheard voices in the process.