‘Red flag’ expansion among gun bills that advance to Colorado Senate floor

By: - March 9, 2023 3:07 pm

State Sen. Tom Sullivan speaks during a Senate Veterans and Military Affairs Committee hearing on Senate Bill 23-170, a gun violence prevention measure he is co-sponsoring, at the state Capitol in Denver, March 8, 2023. (Kevin Mohatt/Colorado Newsline)

Three bills aimed at slowing gun violence in Colorado made it through a committee on Wednesday following an all-day hearing at the Legislature.

The entire Senate will now consider bills to expand the state’s extreme risk protection order law, allow victims of gun violence to sue manufacturers more easily, and raise the minimum age to purchase a firearm.


Together, combined with a bill to enact a three-day waiting period for gun purchases, the bills represent the Democrats’ united effort to address gun violence in the state amid a rise in mass shootings, suicide and other forms of firearm-related harms.

All three bills passed through committee on a party-line vote. Democrats hold large majorities in both the Senate and House this session.

Expanded petitioners for red flag orders

The Senate Committee on State, Veterans, & Military Affairs approved a bill, potentially the headline measure of the package, that expands the type of people who can petition for an extreme risk protection order, also known as a red flag, where a court removes any firearms from a potentially dangerous person. The bill would allow district attorneys, educators and health care professionals, including mental health workers, to seek that intervention.

Under the current law, only law enforcement and household members can file a petition.

“These are individuals and professions that I think are well situated to identify problems and bring them to the attention of the appropriate person,” bill sponsor Senate President Steve Fenberg, a Boulder Democrat, told the committee. He is sponsoring the bill alongside Sen. Tom Sullivan, a Centennial Democrat who also ran the 2019 legislation that first created the ERPO law.

State Sen. Steve Fenberg reacts to a question from his colleague, Republican Sen. Larry Liston, during a Senate Veterans and Military Affairs Committee hearing on a gun violence prevention bill he is co-sponsoring, at the Colorado Capitol, on March 8, 2023. (Kevin Mohatt for Colorado Newsline)

He noted that some law enforcement have come out against the current ERPO law and won’t file petitions, such as the El Paso County Sheriff’s office. The updated policy, Fenberg said, would allow people to have additional options to seek a red flag order if law enforcement chooses not to intervene.

A Colorado Public Radio analysis found that 40 of Colorado’s 64 counties have never filed an ERPO petition.

Opponents testified Wednesday that the first iteration of the ERPO law is unconstitutional, saying that it violates due process, and that any subsequent legislation would also be unconstitutional.

“The current red flag gun confiscation order violates our civil liberties as Coloradans. With this expansion, it will only be easier for your rights to be violated, the exact opposite of what this Legislature should be trying to do,” said Taylor Rhodes, the executive director of Rocky Mountain Gun Owners, who testified in opposition to all three bills Wednesday. Rhodes has promised a staunch opposition to the firearm bills proposed by Democrats this session.

Taylor Rhodes, executive director of Rocky Mountain Gun Owners, testifies against Senate Bill 23-170, a gun violence prevention measure, during the Senate Veterans and Military Affairs Committee hearing at the Colorado Capitol in Denver, March 8, 2023. (Kevin Mohatt for Colorado Newsline)

There was scrutiny of the El Paso County Sheriff’s Office following the Club Q shooting in November, when a gunman known to the department murdered five people at an LGBTQ nightclub. El Paso County Sheriff Joe Roybal reiterated previous statements that an ERPO would not have helped in that case, because an ERPO would not have applied to the weapons used by the shooter.

“This proposed bill here is to try and predict the future or rewrite the past, both of which are flawed,” he said.

“We’re going to allow non-trained professionals six months … to ask a judge to sign an ERPO. That’s a flawed theory,” he continued.

An educator or health care provider who knows a person through a professional relationship within the previous six months could submit a red flag petition for that person under the bill.

Opponents also argued that by including mental health providers as eligible petitioners, people who need help may be reluctant to seek it in fear of having their guns confiscated.

El Paso County Sheriff Joseph Roybal testifies against Senate Bill 23-170, a gun violence prevention measure, during a Senate Veterans and Military Affairs Committee hearing at the Colorado Capitol in Denver, March 8, 2023. (Kevin Mohatt for Colorado Newsline)

Litigation for gun violence survivors

A second bill would make it easier for victims of gun violence to sue firearm dealers and manufacturers. Under current Colorado law, defendants often have to front the legal costs if their case against a firearm industry member gets dismissed, which they often are.

The bill repeals that provision and creates a path for victims to sue if they can prove they were harmed by a gun manufacturer or dealer knowingly ignoring responsible conduct, such as selling magazines of a higher capacity than is legally permitted.

“Litigation is a powerful, effective tool for accountability in all industries, yet Colorado insists on shielding the gun industry from such accountability,” said Lucy Sarkissian, a gun violence survivor and fellow at the Giffords Law Center.

The bill also establishes a firearm industry standard of conduct.

Opponents testified that the legislation is potentially anti-business and that it is unfair to sue a gun dealer over someone else’s actions. They also worried about an influx of “frivolous” lawsuits that would abuse and clog the system.

“We might as well sue (the Colorado Bureau of Investigations) for giving us the opportunity to run a background check that says it is OK to sell that person a weapon. We might as well sue the delivery driver, the delivery company, and we can go down the list,” said Craig Williams, who owns a gun store owner in Peyton.

The state Senate Veterans and Military Affairs Committee hears testimony on Senate Bill 23-170, one of three gun violence prevention bills reviewed during a hearing at the Capitol in Denver, March 8, 2023. (Kevin Mohatt for Colorado Newsline)

Increased minimum purchasing age

The third bill passed during committee on Wednesday would raise the minimum age to purchase or possess a firearm from 18 to to 21 years old.

“We look at age in numerous areas of the laws we have in the state. I would argue that it is important when we look at purchasing firearms, we look at age,” said bill sponsor Sen. Kyle Mullica, a Thornton Democrat.

Bill sponsors and supporters point to research showing that younger people are less mentally developed and tend to be more likely to commit gun violence.

The bill includes exceptions for active-duty military or law enforcement, people with hunting licenses and people under the supervision of an “immediate family member” who is at least 25 years old. An amendment passed Wednesday includes exceptions for people in a hunter education or shooting class.

The three bills are scheduled for second reading on the Senate floor on Friday morning.


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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.