As of last Monday, Colorado is poised to join 14 states and the District of Columbia in enacting a “red flag” gun law (HB19-1177), which authorizes the temporary repossession of a firearm if an individual is deemed at risk of harming themselves or others.
Elected officials in Colorado introduced the legislation on the one-year anniversary of the Parkland shooting this past Valentine’s Day. The bill narrowly passed the Senate 18–17 in late March, with the Democratic President Leroy Garcia of Pueblo, voting against the bill with Republican representatives. It then passed in the House last Monday 43–20, and Governor Jared Polis is expected to sign the bill into law in the near future.
While red flag laws are often spoken of in the context of preventing mass shootings and other criminal occurrences, they also address a more daily pressing reality: suicide by firearm.
Tom Sullivan, democratic house representative from Centennial, Colo., lost his son in the infamous Aurora, Colo. movie theater shooting in 2012. He proudly co-sponsored the bill, citing its potential to prevent both public acts of violence and suicide.
“On the topic of gun violence prevention and mental health, HB19-1177’s role in the process is clear,” Sullivan said. “Temporarily removing firearms from people in crisis prevents them from having access to the most effective way to end their lives until the crisis has passed.”
Colorado currently ranks 10th in the country for suicide rates, and firearms were involved in half of all suicides in the state in 2017.
Alec Garnett, current majority leader in the House and co-sponsor of the bill, echoed Sullivan in emphasizing HB19-1177’s potential in mitigating mental health crises and preventing future tragedies.
“When a person is struggling with violent or suicidal ideation, those individuals can quickly shift from being unstable to stable and back again,” Garnett said. “Mental illness is not cured in 72 hours and taking someone with a mental health condition out of their community and into a facility does not end a mental health crisis — it re-institutionalizes that individual.”
Pikes Peak Suicide Prevention also publicly supported the legislation, with Dr. Matt Thelen, chairperson on the Board of directors, citing the effectiveness of laws centered around “means restrictions.”
“In suicidology, the theory of ‘means restriction’ — restricting access to the means that a person may choose to die by suicide — has been effective. Typical means restrictions include installing jump barriers from bridges and buildings,” Thelen said. “In America, firearm ownership is uniquely high and death by firearms is the overwhelming means for suicide completion … Following this observation, it makes sense that restricting access to firearms will prevent suicide.”
HB19-1177 has especially great potential in Colorado Springs, given the city’s significant military presence. According to The Gazette, more than 40,000 active-duty service members and 80,000 veterans (roughly 18% of the total adult population) currently live in the Pikes Peak region. In 2019, the Military Times Reboot Camp ranked Colorado Springs the best city for veterans to live in. However, veterans here are not immune from the pervasive challenges facing veterans in every corner of America.
According to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, veterans are twice as likely as civilians to die by suicide, and firearms are used in two thirds of all suicides by veterans.
Still, despite data showing that states which enact red flag laws see decreases in suicide, there is already significant pushback to the bill. As of last Monday, 34 Coloradan counties and towns or cities passed opposing resolutions, protesting the bill as unconstitutional. Paul Paradis, owner of gun store “Paradise Sales” in Colorado Springs, is among those who adamantly opposes the bill and argues it will not in fact prevent suicide because if an individual wants to commit suicide but has their firearm confiscated, they will simply turn to another means. Dr. Heather Horton, director of Colorado College’s Wellness Resource Center, presented an alternative viewpoint.
“Saying ‘Oh they’ll choose some other means’ suggests that suicide is an inevitable thing … [when] suicidal thinking and behavior is a crisis that someone is in,” Horton said. “So I think that kind of argument distracts us from the important work as communities of trying to say ‘How do we actually pay attention to one another?’”