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Colorado just used its gun seizure law for the first time — one day after it took effect

The Washington Post logo The Washington Post 1/8/2020 Derek Hawkins
a close up of a weapon: Gun safety and suicide prevention brochures are on display next to guns for sale at a local retail gun store in Montrose, Colo., in 2016. © Brennan Linsley/AP Gun safety and suicide prevention brochures are on display next to guns for sale at a local retail gun store in Montrose, Colo., in 2016.

One day after Colorado’s new firearm seizure law took effect, authorities in the state appear to have used it for the first time.

Denver police invoked the state’s “red flag” law in a petition made public this week, seeking a judge’s approval to let them keep guns they confiscated from a man who allegedly beat his wife and made suicidal statements to investigators.

The law took effect Jan. 1, adding Colorado to a growing list of states with legislation allowing authorities to seize firearms from people deemed to be at risk of harming themselves or others.

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A day later, a sergeant from the Denver Police Department’s domestic violence unit filed the petition in city probate court. A court spokesman told The Washington Post he believed it was the first petition submitted under the legislation.

The swift application of the new statute in Colorado reflects a growing public awareness of “red flag” laws, which have proliferated across the country in the roughly two years since a gunman killed 17 people at a high school in Parkland, Fla.

“It suggests that police know that there’s a need for orders like this and that they know they possess information that can save lives,” said Mark Rosenberg, who formerly oversaw gun violence research at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“Police are aware of this, and they’ve been looking for and waiting for a way to get those guns removed,” Rosenberg said. “And now that that way has been made legal, they have a way to act.”

Colorado’s law sparked a fierce national debate when it passed in April, with many opponents arguing it could infringe on the due process rights of the accused.

Dozens of sheriffs declared their jurisdictions “Second Amendment sanctuaries” and vowed to defy the measure, saying it ran afoul of the Constitution. Supporters called it constitutionally sound, likening it to restraining orders for domestic violence cases and pointing to evidence that similar laws had reduced gun suicides in other states.

The petition filed under Colorado’s law stemmed from a domestic violence call on the night of Dec. 29.

Denver police were dispatched to an apartment complex in the city’s southwest, where a 26-year-old man told them he wanted to “off” himself after getting into a fight with his wife and her sister, according to the petition. The man’s wife told investigators he had attempted to strangle her and had brandished a gun during the altercation.

Officers searched the man and found a Glock 9mm handgun in his waistband, according to the petition. Later, the man let police take a second firearm, a .45-caliber Springfield handgun, from his home.

In conversations with investigators, the man said he was “contemplating doing something bad to myself” and that it was a “good thing they stopped me because it was not good,” according to the petition.

Police said the man’s statements constituted a “credible threat” that he would use the guns to harm himself or someone else and asked a judge to decide whether they must return them. If a judge grants the petition, police could keep his guns for 364 days, as allowed under Colorado’s law. The man could also be barred from possessing other firearms during that period.

The Washington Post is not naming the man because he was not charged with a crime.

A hearing on the petition is set for Jan. 16 in the Denver Probate Court.

Laws like Colorado’s have taken longer to catch on in other parts of the country. When Connecticut enacted the nation’s first “red flag” law in 1999, few people knew about it, including law enforcement officers, according to Jeffrey Swanson, a professor at the Duke University School of Medicine who studies gun violence.

“There was effectively no effort to educate stakeholders about the law and develop standard procedures and infrastructure to use it,” Swanson told The Post. “It took years even for most municipal police officers to become aware that the law was on the books and that they actually had this authority, with a judge’s order, to remove guns from risky people before they committed a crime. Then they had to figure it out — find their way to using this legal tool routinely.”

Until the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in February 2018, four other states followed Connecticut’s lead in adopting “red flag” legislation. Since then, a dozen states and the District of Columbia have passed gun seizure laws in an effort to prevent rising gun violence and suicides by firearm.

But even after as more states and localities have approved their own versions, some have been slow to put it to use. In California, “red flag” legislation went virtually unused for two years after its passage in 2016. In the District of Columbia, authorities waited more than nine months before they filed their first request to seize guns under the city’s “red flag” law. Maryland, by contrast, handled nearly 800 petitions for removal of guns in the first 10 months after its law took effect.

Gun seizure legislation got a major boost over the summer after a pair of mass shootings in El Paso and Dayton, Ohio, left 31 people dead and scores wounded. Responding to the deadly violence, President Trump said the United States should consider “red flag” laws to combat shootings, and Sens. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) and Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) floated a bill to encourage more states to adopt them.

All the attention appears to have helped authorities in Colorado ramp up quickly, Swanson said.

“It actually doesn’t surprise me that some police officers in Colorado started using this law immediately after its effective date. I think part of that is due to the national buzz surrounding ‘red flag’ laws,” he said. “It’s important to have a legal tool to remove guns — temporarily, with legal due process — from risky people at risky times.”

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