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Colorado lawmakers who created a new office to stop gun violence are frustrated by its lack of progress

Tom Sullivan, tom sullivan
David Zalubowski
Associated Press
Rep. Tom Sullivan, D-Aurora, speaks before Colorado Gov. Jared Polis signs a bill to allow Colorado to become the 15th state to adopt a "red flag" gun law allowing firearms to be taken from people who pose a danger during a ceremony Friday, April 12, 2019, in the State Capitol in Denver.

The expectations were clear.

In year one, lawmakers expected the Office of Gun Violence Prevention to distribute at least $50,000 in grants to help communities curb gun deaths, according to budget reports at the state Capitol.

But 18 months after the office was created and given a $3 million annual budget, records show it hasn’t distributed a single grant dollar yet.

A group of frustrated lawmakers are all asking: What’s taking so long?

“Personally, I feel like we've moved a little bit too slowly. And unfortunately, when you see this kind of pace, you question how important is the topic, you know, and why isn't there the urgency that we hope to see?”
State Rep. Jennifer Bacon, D-Denver

Bacon sponsored the bill to create the Office of Gun Violence Prevention during the 2021 legislative session. It was part of a package of bills lawmakers passed in response to the mass shooting at a Boulder King Soopers.

Scott Franz
Capitol Coverage
Sen. Majority Leader Steve Fenberg, D-Boulder, talks about a package of gun bills, including one to create the Office of Gun Violence Prevention, in April, 2021.

But for Bacon, the legislation was also personal. One of Bacon’s former students was shot and killed in her northeast Denver driveway in 2019. And the tragedies continue this year.

“It's not just the mass shootings,” she said. “Lost two children in my district to gun violence in the last month. So it's all the time.”

Bacon and other lawmakers had said the new office would help save lives by sending grants to communities hardest hit by gun violence. It also would oversee a resource bank of gun violence data and conduct public awareness campaigns. But three of the architects of the new office, including Bacon, are not satisfied with the results so far.

“We certainly are still in a ramping up phase, and I think that's disappointing perhaps in its slowness,” Rep. Meg Froelich, D-Englewood, said earlier this month. I do hope that pretty soon we start to have a relationship in which this is identified as a public health crisis, and we get real statistics on how it is affecting our communities.”

Big budget, little spending

Financial records KUNC obtained through an open records request show the Office of Gun Violence Prevention has spent a small fraction of the $3 million it was given during its first year.

To date, the office is reporting $219,390 in total spending, with the biggest investments made in employee salaries ($173,209), new computer equipment ($4,041), and a contract with the University of Colorado to house a resource bank ($25,305). The resource bank includes, data, research and statistics about gun violence in Colorado.

Courtesy/Office of Gun Violence Prevention
A spreadsheet showing the total expenses of the Office of Gun Violence Prevention since its creation in June, 2021.

Bacon said she was prepared to boost the program’s budget following an increase in gun violence last year, but the office said it wasn’t ready to spend it yet.

With millions of dollars still sitting unspent, lawmakers are pressing the office behind the scenes to send out grants more quickly.

The office said in a progress report on Nov. 30 that it was preparing to launch a $450,000 grant program sometime this winter, but no further details were provided.

Meanwhile, some lawmakers are also frustrated by a lack of public outreach from the office’s leader. And others are pointing to the faster pace of other gun violence prevention offices in the country and wondering why Colorado’s isn’t keeping up.

‘We will be a model’

Colorado lawmakers touted the Office of Gun Violence Prevention as one of the first examples in the country of a state government creating a dedicated office to focus on the issue.

Since no other state has an office similar to this, we will be the model,” State Rep. Tom Sullivan, D-Centennial, said as he convinced lawmakers to create the office in 2021. “We will have already been established and thus first in line to apply for the grant programs and resources from the feds.”

But 18 months later, the Office of Gun Violence Prevention has yet to ask the federal government for any money.

And even its architects admit it’s getting outperformed by another gun prevention office that started the very same month as Colorado’s.

The Illinois Office of Firearm Violence Prevention started accepting grant applications earlier this year. It also has already released a report showing which areas will be eligible to get them based on their higher rates of gun violence.

Rep. Froelich of Englewood said she views Illinois as the model.

We've seen it get up to speed a little bit quicker in other states,” she said. “But of course, other states have year-round legislatures to add and more appropriated funds and things like that.”

A low profile

Jonathan McMillan started leading the Office of Gun Violence Prevention in May.

But his name and photo still aren’t on the agency’s website yet.

KUNC attempted to interview McMillan a few weeks after he started in the spring, but his staff said he was still getting acclimated and wasn’t ready for interviews.

When KUNC reached out again last month in the wake of the Club Q shooting, the office declined again and said that an interview would be outside of its “purview.” 

The lack of public outreach has left some of the office’s architects, including Rep. Sullivan, frustrated.

“It’s not the time to be staying in the background. It’s a time for the leaders to get out in front of this issue and confront it and let the people know what our plans are.”
State Rep. Tom Sullivan, D-Centennial

Mourners gather outside Club Q to visit a memorial, which has been moved from a sidewalk outside of police tape that was surrounding the club, on Friday, Nov. 25, 2022, in Colorado Spring, Colo.
Parker Seibold
Mourners gather outside Club Q to visit a memorial, which has been moved from a sidewalk outside of police tape that was surrounding the club, on Friday, Nov. 25, 2022, in Colorado Spring, Colo.

McMillan has made a few public appearances since he started. He did speak on a panel about criminal justice reform last month at the University of Colorado.

You're not going to be able to arrest or incarcerate yourself out of violent crime, it's just not going to happen,” he said. “We need to make sure that we're focused on the human condition that is creating the circumstances that people commit crimes, especially violent crimes to themselves or others.”

He also waded into politics, saying he was nervous about some of the campaigning during the midterm elections and beyond.

I'm very nervous about what's going to happen on Tuesday (Nov. 8), and I'm very nervous about what's going to happen in two years from now, because we have people who are running on platforms that America's an unsafe place, our communities are unsafe, and it's because one side did one thing or didn't do another thing,” he said.

Accountability hearings looming

Lawmakers who are frustrated by the lack of progress at the gun violence prevention office are vowing to use a series of public accountability hearings next month to press for answers about the slow pace.

“This certainly wasn't something to kind of just create and leave,” Rep. Bacon said last week. “We have to figure out how to put deadlines in our legislation and really figure out, try to do our best to get to the bottom of what's needed to really execute the way we want to.”

Every state department is legally required to present a performance plan to lawmakers at the hearings, which take place during the first two weeks of the legislative session, which begins in January.

As lawmakers prepare to press for answers on the slow progress, gun deaths continue to rise in the state.

According to the latest annual report from the Office of Gun Violence Prevention, the number of gun-related deaths in Colorado was greater in the last five years than deaths due to motor vehicle crashes or opioid overdoses or influenza.

Office of Gun Violence Prevention
A chart shows gun death rates in Colorado from 2017 to 2021

The state also saw a significant upticks in firearm deaths from homicides and suicides between 2021 and 2022.

Scott Franz is an Investigative Reporter with KUNC.