On New Year’s Eve 2017, Sheriff MPs responded to a domestic disturbance in the Denver suburb of Highlands Ranch. Before the night was over, four officers had been shot and the Douglas County deputy sheriff, Zackari Parrish III, was dead.
The shooter was a 37-year-old man with a history of psychotic episodes whose family had previously attempted to take his guns but were found without legal recourse.
“We’ve tried every legal option to not only protect him but also to protect the community,” said Tony Spurlock, Douglas County Sheriff. At that time, however, there was nothing left that they could do.
That changed with the passage of the Law to Prevent Violence against Zackari Parrish III, which went into effect in January 2020. It gives judges the ability to issue “Extreme Risk Protection Instructions” that enable law enforcement agencies to seize firearms from individuals who are considered to be dangerous to themselves or others.
Colorado is one of the youngest of 19 states to have passed red flag laws. Connecticut was first seen in 1999. Since then, data has been mixed on whether the laws have prevented suicides and inconclusive as to whether they can contain mass shootings. Connecticut law, for example, did not prevent the 2012 mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, although proponents usually refer to the law as a gunfight prevention tool that is not 100% effective.
But law enforcement officers who support the law say they clearly saved lives. A study published in 2019 looked at 21 cases in California where extreme risk protection orders were issued from 2016 to 2018 and found that as of August 2019, none of those affected by that order had committed murder or suicide, although impossible to prove is The commands prevented such results.
Red flag law had not been enforced in Colorado, the site of some of the most notorious mass shootings in the country, when a gunman killed 10 people in a Boulder grocery store in March.
In Indiana, where a former FedEx employee shot and killed eight people at an Indianapolis facility before killing himself in April, prosecutors failed to seek a trial under that state’s red flag law last year after the mother of the Suspects reported to police that their son had committed suicide.
Mass shootings may get the most attention, but they’re too rare to measure whether the red flag laws help prevent them, said Rosanna Smart, an economist who investigates gun violence at Rand Corp. examined.
The suspect, who was arrested and charged with the murder and attempted murder in the Boulder shooting, has had violent outbreaks that date back three years or more. Hence it is difficult to judge whether the red flag law could do so while facts about the case are still being applied to it.
In 2018, the man pleaded guilty to assaulting a third-degree classmate after beating a fellow student at his suburban Denver high school in an attack the victim said was unprovoked. He was also kicked off the school’s wrestling team after threatening violence.
Police confiscated a shotgun from the Indianapolis shooting suspect after his mother reported in 2020 that she was concerned that her then 18-year-old son was considering “police suicide” or deliberately provoking a fatal reaction from officials. An Indiana prosecutor told The Associated Press that authorities had not requested a red flag hearing because they feared they would have to return the shotgun to him if they lost in court.
Most gun deaths in the US are suicides, and Smart said about two-thirds of red flag cases consider someone at risk for self-harm.
In April last year, Smart and her colleagues published an overview of the effects of the red flag laws and found “very inconclusive” evidence that they are overall effective as a means of reducing the suicide or homicide rates of firearms.
“I wouldn’t say it’s strong either way,” said Smart.
Research by Aaron Kivisto, a psychologist at the University of Indianapolis, used a method called “synthetic control” to calculate that 10 years after the 2005 Indiana Red Flag Act went into effect, suicides were down 7.5 percent. were lower than expected without the law, and the decline was driven solely by reductions in firearm suicides.
In Connecticut, the results were more of a “mixed bag,” said Kivisto. Initially the effect was “negligible,” but Connecticut law didn’t apply until after the Virginia Tech shooting in 2007, in which a student killed 32 people and wounded 17. After that shooting, the Connecticut seizures quintupled and Kivisto’s group then saw a decrease in gun suicides in the state, but also found that decrease was largely offset by the increase in non-gun suicides. Even so, Kivisto took all of the studies together and said, “The greatest benefit is that the evidence supporting the red flag laws as a means of reducing suicide is consistently supported.”
Colorado’s suicide rates are among the highest in the nation, but it’s too early to know if the state’s red flag law made a difference, especially given that 2020 was unusual in so many other ways.
From January 1, 2020 to March 26, 2021, 141 red flag cases were counted in Colorado. In 28 of the state’s 64 counties, including some of the more than 35 counties whose sheriffs or district chiefs were against the law calling themselves “second amendment sanctuaries,” where the law would not be enforced, the law had orders for State representative Tom Sullivan, a Democrat, enacted extreme risks. Sullivan, one of the bill’s sponsors, has been a gun control advocate since his 27-year-old son Alex was among the 12 killed by a gunner while filming at the Aurora Theater in 2012.
Wherever the red flag law was applied in Colorado, “it has clearly saved these people’s lives. These people are still alive and their family members are still alive and they are not in custody for murder, “said the Douglas County Sheriff Spurlock. “I think it keeps my officers safer and our community safer.”
But the law still has numerous opponents. Weld County Sheriff Steve Reams counters handling criminal charges against situations like the one last fall where an extreme risk order was approved for a 28-year-old man who plans to assassinate Attorney General Phil Weiser should become law of the red flag.
“Rote Fahne does not seem to me to be a primary method of dealing with a potentially criminal situation,” said Reams, who referred to Sheriff Spurlock as a good friend with whom he repeatedly debated the problem.
Regarding people at risk of self-harm, Reams said he would rather have better ways to treat them mentally than take their guns away.
Opponents of the Red Flag laws say they are unconstitutional, but a constitutional challenge to Colorado’s law filed by the Rocky Mountain Gun Owners group and several Republican lawmakers was made by a Denver District Court judge last spring rejected.
Some opposition to Colorado’s law is centered on execution rather than intent. Dave Kopel, associate law professor at the University of Denver and an analyst at the libertarian Cato Institute, has testified in Colorado for red flag laws but has criticized the current law for saying it was a weakness in due process .
“The prosecutor never has to appear in court or be questioned,” he said, which means the judge may only hear one side of the case. “As a professor of constitutional law, I believe that you should start writing the law with strict process protection.”
But Spurlock, a Republican, said there are more due process in implementing Colorado’s red flag law than there is in obtaining a search warrant from the police. He said he supported gun rights but not permission to possess criminals or anyone who posed a danger to himself or others.
“That’s why I supported the red flag. And I will continue to do so. I know it saves lives and doesn’t harm anyone, ”he said.
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