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'Extremely disappointed:' CO lawmakers vent about lack of progress at gun violence prevention office

Leaders of the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment speak at the state Capitol during an accountability hearing where lawmakers criticized them for not making enough progress to curb gun violence.
Scott Franz
Leaders of the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment speak at the state Capitol during an accountability hearing where lawmakers criticized them for not making enough progress to curb gun violence.

Colorado lawmakers are growing increasingly frustrated with an office they created a year and a half ago to prevent gun violence, and they are vowing to increase legislative oversight of the office and better track its work.

The Office of Gun Violence Prevention launched in July 2021 with a $3 million budget, but it still has not distributed any grant money to help communities curb gun violence. Lawmakers used an accountability hearing at the Capitol last week to vent and put more pressure on the leadership of the office to start delivering.

In front of cameras and microphones and an audience of dozens, they didn’t hold back.

“Somehow it's a bottleneck. And you have, what, $3 million? And none of it has been allocated to the people who are trying to keep our community safe,” State Sen. Rhonda Fields, D-Aurora, told the office’s leaders.

The issue is personal for Fields. She got into politics to pursue gun reform after her son and his fiancé were shot and killed driving through Aurora in 2005.

“Gun violence, it needs to be addressed and it needs to happen like yesterday,” Fields said.

State Sen. Soya Jaquez Lewis of Boulder County also blasted the leadership of the Office of Gun Violence Prevention for a lack of progress.

“I am extremely disappointed in the rollout of the Gun Violence Prevention Office. Extremely, because it started in July of 2021, and we do not have a single dollar that has gone out the door,” she said. 

The office appeared to anticipate the public grilling it was about to get from lawmakers. Less than 24 hours before the accountability hearing, it announced it is launching the grant program many lawmakers have been demanding for almost two years. Applications are open through early February.

Initially lawmakers created the Office of Gun Violence Prevention to effectively find ways to address and fund initiatives that could prevent gun-related deaths and incidents in the state of Colorado. The money that should be coming out of this office is designed to help cities educate residents on topics such as safely storing guns and the use of red flaglaws to remove weapons from dangerous people.

Jonathan McMillan has been leading the office since May. He said groups can apply for a maximum of ten thousand dollars each.

The projects that are eligible range from purchasing gun safes to holding community events to raise awareness about Colorado's red flag law.

“And we're working already with community partners, are involved with community crime prevention efforts, community violence intervention efforts and crime victim support,” he said. 

Representative Fields and gun safety advocates say the money might be too little, too late. Fields questioned how impactful a $10,000 grant could be.

Fields also accused the office of focusing too much on data and not involving community groups in the decision making process.

“And not engaging the community for 18 months,” she added. “And when you do that, it creates doubt and questions about what are they doing?”

KUNC reached out McMillan for an interview when he was hired as director, and he declined. After the Club Q shooting, KUNC reached out again and again received a message that McMillan was declining interviews and did not believe the Office of Gun Violence Prevention was responsible for addressing specific events.

Interviews this fall with lawmakers who created the office revealed they were upset with the lack of progress.

"Personally, I feel like we've moved a little bit too slowly," said Rep. Jennifer Bacon, D-Denver. "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?”

Meanwhile, the office’s leaders are defending their progress. Eric France is the state’s chief medical officer andfirst director of the Office of Gun Violence Prevention. He told lawmakers he felt it was more important in the first year to talk to researchers and find data that could expose the root cause of gun violence.

“My focus was not on getting grant monies out the door,” he said. “I felt compelled by the law, by the language of the law, to build a communications program, to build the resource bank, to hire the individuals.”

Lawmakers and gun safety advocates see things differently. And they’re asking the office for more.

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

With Colorado’s gun deaths climbing year after year, they’re calling for a massive advertising campaign similar to the one the state launched to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. Maisha Fields is a gun reform advocate who also helped with the state’s COVID response.

“We immediately had commercials on the radio. We immediately had pamphlets and leaflets,” she said. “We know how to do this work, whether it's COVID…whether it's making sure kids wear a helmet when they're riding their bikes. We know how to develop public health campaigns” 

Fields urged the office to start with promoting safe gun storage techniques, especially after two guns were stolen out of a Republican lawmakers truck this month near the state Capitol.

Meanwhile, lawmakers ended the accountability hearing with a vow to create a new oversight committee made up of community members that would meet monthly to help keep tabs on the work of the office.

Scott Franz is an Investigative Reporter with KUNC.
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