Montezuma County commissioners on Thursday declared the county a gun sanctuary in response to a proposed gun control law in the Colorado Legislature.
About 150 people filled the commissioners’ meeting room for public comment Thursday night, and about 10 others were in the county annex building, watching to the proceedings on a live video feed.
Twenty residents spoke in favor of the resolution, and nine spoke against it. About 8:30 p.m., the Board of County Commissioners voted 3-0 in favor of the resolution after a motion by Larry Don Suckla and a second by Jim Candelaria.
Suckla also said he hopes to have a county ordinance to back up the resolution within 30 days.
The resolution is based on commissioners’ conclusion that Colorado House Bill 1177, a proposed “red flag” law, violates the Colorado and U.S. constitutions’ rights to gun ownership and due process.
On Monday, the state House approved the bill, 38-25, and it now goes to the Senate.
The resolution states Montezuma County is “a Sanctuary County for the Constitutional right to bear and keep arms.” It was signed by Commissioners Keenan Ertel, Candelaria and Suckla, and County Clerk and Recorder Kim Percell.
Suckla said it “boiled down” to due process and protecting the rights of the Constitution.
He said the red flag bill, by allowing a gun seizure, “makes a person guilty until proved innocent. That breaks the constitution and is not a law to follow.”
However, it is doubtful that the resolution would carry any legal authority or will be enforced by the Sheriff’s Office. During the weekly commissioners meeting on Tuesday, Sheriff Steven Nowlin said he would support a resolution that opposed HB 1177, but he did not sign a resolution declaring the county a “sanctuary” because it would conflict with his sworn duty to enforce the law.
County Attorney John Baxter explained that gun sanctuary language tells the citizens that HB 177 would not be enforced. But without the Nowlin’s signature, the county “legally doesn’t have a lot of ground to stand on,” Baxter said.
He added that a sanctuary designation might lead to litigation against the county.
What the bill would doHB 1177 creates the ability for a family member, household member or law enforcement officer to petition the court for a temporary extreme risk protection order. The petitioner must present evidence under oath that a person poses significant risk to self or others by having a firearm in his or her custody.
The court must hold a temporary protection order hearing on the day the petition is filed or the day after, and the evidence must meet the “clear and convincing’ standard. If the court issues the order, the person shall surrender all his or her firearms and concealed carry permit.
A second court hearing must be held within 14 days to determine whether the protection order should be continued for up to 364 days, during which time the person is prohibited from possessing a firearm. The court must provide an attorney for the person under the protection order during the hearing.
The person can motion the court once during the 364-day order for a hearing to terminate the protection order. The respondent has the burden of proof at a termination hearing.
Three drafts offered to publicThe draft of the resolution that county commissioners presented to about 80 people who attended the meeting on Tuesday vowed to “protect individual civil rights and not violate the Constitutional rights of people,” pitting it against a law that the commissioners said “infringes upon the people’s Constitutional rights to keep and bear arms.”
The revised drafts that commissioners took to Thursday’s meeting for public input employed less potent language. All contained the names of commissioners Ertel, Candelaria Suckla and Percell, but Nowlin’s name was left off the two drafts that declared a sanctuary.
The approved draft, titled “Declaration That Montezuma County is a Sanctuary County for the Constitutional Right to Keep and Bear Arms,” removed the proposed protection clause that was presented Tuesday and declared without elaboration that the county was a “Sanctuary County for the Constitutional right to keep and bear arms.”
An optional draft, titled “Declaration That Montezuma County is a Sanctuary County for Constitutional Rights,” declared that the county is a “Sanctuary County that wishes to protect U.S. and Colorado Constitutional rights.” It retreated from the county’s draft presented Tuesday that it “will protect” people’s civil and Constitutional rights.
The other option, titled “Opposition to Infringement Upon the Constitutional Right to Keep and Bear Arms,” made no mention of becoming a gun sanctuary, but it resolved to “protect individual civil rights and not violate the Constitutional rights of the people.” Nowlin’s name was included only on that document.
Public weighs inOn Thursday, the meeting room was filled by the time it started at 6:30 p.m. Copies of the three draft resolutions were available.
Public comment lasted more than two hours and involved 30 commenters. People appreciated the civil atmosphere and freedom to speak on the issue.
Loud applause accompanied pro-gun statements, with the occasional shout from the crowd. Proponents speaking for red flag laws, or against the county’s sanctuary approach, also received cheers and applause.
Dexter Gill supported the county’s move to assert constitutional rights, and said it was a message to the legislature that Montezuma County is against the red flag bill.“The legislature thinks that they can pass a law and that it therefore amends the U.S. Constitution, but it does not,” he said. “We abide by the U.S. Constitution. State laws are under it and must be crafted to abide by it.”
Leigh Sands of Dolores felt the county should engage in the legislative process, rather than jump to a gun sanctuary.“There is an opportunity for the county to get involved when you do not agree,” she said. “Assuming everyone supports this is unfair, and more time and input is needed from the community on this weighty issue.”
Rebecca Busic was concerned about the commissioners setting a poor precedent by “invoking executive power when they do not agree with a law.”Steven Fogt said the red flag bill has an Orwellian feel to it from the novel “1984.”“We all read that and got the message that when you give up freedom for safety, you end up with neither.”
Retired counselor Lisa Henry urged the commission to slow down to allow more time. She said that a family member’s suicide might have been prevented by a red flag law.“The red flag law would have bought time. Each time help is sought, it increases chances of survival.”
John Buck thanked the commissioners for fighting against the red flag bill. He said having a claim of mental illness is arbitrary and would lead to abuse by vindictive people.“It is obvious that this is a gun grab issue,” he said.
Nowlin said he would protect the constitutional rights of the community.“Upholding the constitution is what protects our rights and gives us our freedoms, and I will be there for you,” he said.
He said while he was not in favor of HB 1177, he could not sign a resolution that contained the word “sanctuary” because it implies the county is outside state law. The sheriff takes an oath to uphold state law.
He said certain mental illness cases have an element of being a civil matter, and red flag laws turns it into a criminal matter. As a strategy, his office works with family, friends and neighbors of a victim suffering from mental illness to resolve the situation safely.
“And it has been working,” Nowlin said. “Because of the trust in this community, we are heading off problems, and my hat is off to everyone for your support.”
Commissioners speakIn their discussion, the commissioners were steadfast in their support for the gun sanctuary resolution.
While a resolution is effective at sending a message to the state legislature, Suckla said it is not strong enough.
“In 30 days I also want to pass an ordinance that Montezuma County is a gun sanctuary for Colorado and the U.S.,” he said.
Candelaria said the county is not breaking any law with the resolution. He rejected a claim to slow down in the decision.
“Our rights are being eroded, and when you slow down you get run over,” he said. “I don’t think HB 1177 addresses mental health issues.”
He supported passing the sanctuary resolution that included all Constitutional rights, but then agreed to go with the one specific to protecting the right to bear arms.
“We are sending a message to Denver to listen to us, and that we have a right to our freedoms,” he said.
Ertel said he felt the red flag bill was trying to circumvent the constitution to gain gun control, and was unfairly using mental illness as a way to justify it.
“I think that is the motive. By disarming a nation, it is easily controlled,” he said. “I am also of the mind to pass another one and keep reiterating to the legislature about our belief in the Constitution down here.”
The county commissioners will send the resolution to the state legislature, and also included a letter addressing the need for more mental health services.
The letter states that the county recognizes the legitimate need to help those struggling with issues pertaining to mental health, and that the county has one of the highest overdose death rates.
“The county’s elected officials urge the assembly to spend resources to aid mental health and substance use crisis rather than compromise the rights of law-abiding citizens,” the letter states.