Frustration grows over slow progress at Colorado’s gun violence prevention office

Office will offer first mini-grants 18 months after formation

By: - January 23, 2023 4:00 am

People visit a makeshift memorial near the Club Q nightclub on Nov. 22, 2022, in Colorado Springs. On Nov. 19, a 22-year-old gunman entered the LGBTQ nightclub and opened fire, killing five people before being tackled and disarmed by a club patron. (Scott Olson/Getty Images)

Colorado lawmakers say they want to see more progress, including grant programs and educational campaigns, from an office they created a year and a half ago to prevent gun violence.

The Office of Gun Violence Prevention, housed within the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, launched in July 2021 and was part of a package of bills in response to the Boulder King Soopers shooting. Since then, lawmakers say, the office has not done the level of work they expected to see by now with a $3 million budget.

“You guys know how to do this work. You just did the COVID rapid response,” state Sen. Rhonda Fields, an Aurora Democrat, told office representatives during a Jan. 11 accountability hearing in front of the Joint Health and Human Services Committee.

“In our communities, we’re seeing far too many kids and people impacted by gun violence,” she said. “We need to make sure we get funding in the hands of the people doing this work. And, somehow, it’s bottlenecked. You have $3 million and none of it has been allocated to the people who are trying to keep our communities safe.”

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The legislation that created the office, House Bill 21-1299, directs the office to conduct public awareness campaigns on laws and existing resources, maintain a resource bank on gun violence in Colorado and administer a grant program for community-based intervention programs.

So far, the office has not fully completed any of its mandates and is in the beginning stages of some.

The office has contracted with a vendor to house an eventual resource bank, finalized the vendor selection for a statewide communications campaign and established a $450,000 grant program, about half of which will be distributed via $10,000 “mini-grants.” Applications for that grant program are due in early February.

Rather than dole out a handful of larger grants, the office’s strategy is to reach many organizations and build relationships with potential collaborating groups.

“We want to help the people who are at the grassroots level, to sustain and complement the work that is already happening. As a new office, we want to be able to start to develop connections,” Jonathan McMillan, the office’s director, who was hired in May 2022, told Colorado Newsline. “We recognize $10,000 isn’t a whole lot of money, but it is a foundation to build these relationships.”

I’m disappointed, because they’ve distributed no grant money in a year and a half. That’s too long to wait when you have $3 million available.

– State Sen. Sonya Jaquez Lewis

The goal would then be to follow up with larger, long-term grant funding opportunities as the office matures and impact can be quantified. McMillan said the office has about 30 organizations interested in the mini-grant program so far.

The office is also distributing $250,000 to two organizations that already have contracts and established relationships with CDPHE: Denver Metro Community Impact and the Latino Coalition.

Some lawmakers, however, are concerned about the delay in getting a grant program started.

“I’m disappointed, because they’ve distributed no grant money in a year and a half. That’s too long to wait when you have $3 million available,” state Sen. Sonya Jaquez Lewis, who sits on the Senate Health and Human Services Committee, told Newsline.

“A vast majority of Coloradans really want us to do something about this deadly problem. When you’re in charge of an office like that, that is actually charged with gun violence prevention, their mission is urgent and should go faster,” she said.

State Sen. Rhonda Fields, a Democrat from Aurora, speaks during a press conference on the west steps of the Colorado Capitol on Aug. 24, 2022, about gun violence prevention. Behind her, from left, are Jeffco school board member Mary Parker, gun violence prevention activist Tom Mauser, state Rep. Tom Sullivan, Democratic candidate for state House District 61 Eliza Hamrick, Colorado Democratic Party Executive Director Karin Asensio, and gun violence prevention activist Maisha Fields. (Quentin Young/Colorado Newsline)

Jaquez Lewis also said she was dismayed that the office has not applied for any federal funding, including American Rescue Plan Act money that was available to address or prevent gun violence in cities.

Eric France, the state’s chief medical officer and first director of the office, said that he primarily focused on setting up the office according to the legislation in the first year.

“My focus was not on getting grant monies out the door. I felt compelled by the language of the law to build a communications program, to build a resource bank and to hire individuals,” he told lawmakers.

“If I had more experience as a state employee, I might have said ‘Let’s go ahead and get money out the door today,’ even though that’s not how it’s necessarily prioritized in the bill,” he said.

That approach, Fields said, felt removed from the situation on the ground, where there is an increase of firearm-related homicides and suicides in the state and communities reeling from mass shootings, such as in November at Club Q in Colorado Springs.

“In all the work you are doing, you have to include the voice of the community,” she said. “You cannot have leadership and a plan and an approach to address gun violence in a silo or on the balcony. Having these conversations with yourself and not engaging with the community for 18 months — when you do that, it creates doubt and questions.”

McMillan defended the office’s progress so far and the data-driven, public health approach the work is taking.

“We want to make sure that we’re moving in the right way and making the correct decisions rather than moving quickly and being reactive to a situation that is so complex,” he said. “It takes time, and I just ask as the leader of the office that anyone who is just as passionate as I am to give me a little bit of grace and a little bit of patience, and seek out ways to partner with us to move forward.”

Aside from getting grant money into the hands of community organizations, lawmakers want the office to prioritize educational campaigns. State Sen. Tom Sullivan, an Aurora Democrat who sponsored the bill that created the office, said he wants to see education specifically about Colorado’s extreme risk protection order, or red flag, law, which permits confiscation of firearms from people deemed to be a risk.

“One of the things right off the bat is that we made a big point that they were able to publicize our extreme risk protection order, and we haven’t seen anything of that yet. I’m certainly hoping they’ll get better with that,” he told Newsline.

Moving forward, lawmakers said they want to see the formation of an advisory committee for the office, which McMillan is in strong favor of. The contracts for the educational communications team and the resource bank development team both require an advisory committee component.

“Anyone who is committed to being part of the solution is welcome to be part of those. We want to be inclusive, marching towards a shared objective of saving lives and being constructive towards gun violence prevention in Colorado,” McMillan said.

There are examples of similar gun violence prevention offices across the country, but Colorado’s is unique in that it is in the public health department.

Washington legislators created their state’s Office of Firearm Safety and Violence Prevention in 2020. It distributed $8 million in grants during the 2022-2023 fiscal year

Illinois legislators created the state’s Office of Firearm Violence Prevention in 2021 and California’s attorney general launched the state’s Office of Gun Violence Prevention in September 2022.

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Sara Wilson
Sara Wilson

Sara Wilson covers state government, Colorado's congressional delegation, energy and other stories for Newsline. She formerly was a reporter for The Pueblo Chieftain, where she covered politics and government in southern Colorado. Wilson earned a master's degree in journalism from Northwestern University, and as a student she reported on Congress and other federal beats in Washington, D.C.

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