Colorado’s controversial “red flag” gun bill, a measure that would allow law enforcement to remove firearms from those who may pose a threat, could help reduce the state’s high number of suicides.
“We do see red flag laws as a potentially very helpful strategy,” said Ron Honberg, senior policy adviser with the National Alliance on Mental Illness.
The vast majority of those with mental illness don’t pose a great risk of harming others with a firearm, but many are at risk of suicide, he said.
In 2016, 1,121 Coloradans died by suicide, and of those, 52 percent used a firearm, making it the most common lethal means used in the state, according to data collected by the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment. Those who use a firearm to attempt suicide are also far more likely to die than those who use other means.
The law proposed in Colorado, House Bill 1177, would allow law enforcement and family members to report someone as a threat and seek a court order to have that person’s weapons seized. A weapon’s seizure could be extended by a court for as many as 364 days.
Connecticut was the first state to adopt a “red flag” law in 1999, and since then, 13 other states have adopted the laws, according to the Associated Press.
A 2017 study that analyzed the effectiveness of Connecticut’s law found the measures can be “modestly effective” in preventing suicide. It also found 10 to 20 gun seizures were carried out for every averted suicide.
A similar study released in 2018 found Connecticut’s law reduced firearm-related suicides by 13.7 percent after 2007 and a law in Indiana reduced suicides by 7.5 percent over 10 years.
The ability for family members to report someone as a threat is important for the law to be effective because family members would see the person believed to be a threat all the time, not just in crisis, as law enforcement might, Honberg said.
The seizure of weapons should be followed by mental health treatment for it not be a superficial prevention strategy, he said.
“You really have to get at the core of it and address the factors that have given rise to suicidality,” he said.
Honberg was not aware of any studies showing the effectiveness of “red flag” laws to prevent homicides.
La Plata County Sheriff Sean Smith said he supported the proposed law because it could help law enforcement prevent homicides and suicides. Law enforcement officers often encounter suicidal residents who are crying out for help, he said.
“This may be a tool that law enforcement could use to help intervene and maybe save some of those lives,” he said.
Smith said he has heard from a few residents who are concerned about the bill because it would allow family members to petition to have weapons taken away from an individual, and they felt that aspect of the bill could be abused.
Smith said he encouraged those residents to contact their state senator, because the law is pending in the Senate.
Sen. Don Coram, R-Montrose, said he was also concerned the bill could be abused by family members who simply don’t like an individual.
“If you’re going to infringe on someone’s Second Amendment rights, you better damn well have good reason,” he said.
He is also concerned the bill wouldn’t protect due process of those who have weapons seized and implementation could present a burden to rural courts.