By Miles Montgomery | Illustration by Cate Johnson
LONGMONT — A controversial new law allowing police to confiscate firearms in certain circumstances has opened a dramatic ideological rift in a state with a long gun-owning tradition that also has seen some of the nation’s most notorious mass shootings.
Colorado’s “red flag” gun legislation, which went into effect in January 2020, allows law enforcement or a family member to petition a judge to temporarily remove someone’s firearm or firearms from their possession, or stop them from buying one, if possession of a firearm was deemed to be a significant risk to themselves or others. A court hearing should take place no later than 14 days after an order is issued to determine whether an Extreme Risk Protection Order, or ERPO, should be continued; if so, the ERPO’s length is extended to 364 days. Within that year, someone has a single opportunity to appeal.
Perhaps nowhere is the divide more physically evident than along a cracked and rutted two-lane county road on the outskirts of Longmont, separating conservative Weld County from its more liberal neighbor of Boulder.
On a recent Sunday, residents on either side of East County Line Road underscored the controversy that has enveloped the state, and the nation, when it comes to issues involving the Second Amendment.
“I am very glad I live on this side of the county road,” said Robert, a 59 year-old longtime Weld County resident who declined to give his last name because he worried it being published could lead someone to deem him “a danger to society just because I own firearms.”
Just down the road, but on the Boulder County side, John Johnson, 79, explained his support for the new law while smoking a cigarette inside a garage stocked with outdoor gear and a large motorboat.
“The way I have interpreted and read it, it makes common sense,” he said of the new law, which has become perhaps the most controversial legislation since Democrats took full control of the Capitol last year for the first time since 2006. Johnson, who has lived in Boulder County for 50 years, described himself as “definitely not an anti-gun person.”
The sentiments of the two residents living on opposite sides of the road reflect their own elected officials.
“This can be done safely. It can be done intelligently,” said Boulder County’s Democratic sheriff, Joe Pelle, during a ceremony in which the state’s new Democratic governor, Jared Polis, signed the bill into law in April 2019.
Just across the county line, however, Weld County’s Republican sheriff, Steve Reams, stands in stark opposition to the law, and has become a figurehead of protest against it. “If a judge issues me an order that’s in violation of the Constitution, then I can’t do that, I won’t do it,” Reams told CNN last year. The sheriff cites due process concerns, as well as placing his officers in potentially dangerous situations.
As of May 12, Sheriff Pelle has not found himself in the unenviable position of deciding how he might handle a red-flag petition, but on Feb. 28, a red-flag petition was filed against Sheriff Reams by an inmate in a Colorado jail.
The petition was denied by a judge, but Reams has discussed using his case as an example of how the law could be potentially abused, and has recently been discussing legal strategy with the Weld County Attorney to formulate a challenge to the law. In a recent interview with Complete Colorado, Reams stated, “I’ve talked to several attorneys who have told me we have to file something. What exactly that is, we are in the consideration phase of that right now.”
Nearly 20 states have already implemented similar laws. Since the law passed in Colorado, more than half of the state’s 64 counties have passed resolutions declaring themselves “Second Amendment Sanctuaries,” with many county sheriffs saying they might refuse to enforce the law.
Reams attracted national attention when he said he would rather stand in contempt of a court order, and potentially risk sitting in his own jail, rather than violate what he says are a citizen’s constitutional rights.
Since the law came into effect Jan. 1, there have been at least eight petitions filed in Colorado — in Denver, Larimer County, Archuleta County, and Lincoln County. A judge denied a recent petition, by a woman in Limon, becoming the first red flag petition a judge has rejected in Colorado. Recently, Lincoln County commissioners passed a resolution declaring their county a Second Amendment Sanctuary.
However, the most controversial red flag petition so far occurred Jan. 16, when a Fort Collins woman, Susan Holmes, filed a petition to disarm the Colorado State University police officer, Corporal Phillip Morris, who shot and killed her son in 2017. Morris’s actions were deemed legally justifiable by the Larimer County district attorney. A Larimer County judge denied the petition, citing a lack of legal standing.
On Jan. 30, a warrant for the arrest of Holmes was issued by the Larimer County Sheriff’s Office, accusing Holmes of perjury and alleging she filed a fraudulent ERPO. On her petition, Holmes checked a box on a form stating that Morris shared a child with her; Holmes told The Denver Post in an interview that this was false, insinuating that she had a legal defense for checking the box. There is now a warrant out for her arrest.
Boulder and Weld County aren’t the only neighboring counties in Colorado where sheriffs take up opposing positions on the polarizing law.
Having witnessed numerous gun-related tragedies in his community, most recently the 2017 shooting of Douglas County Deputy Zackari Parrish, Republican Sheriff Tony Spurlock is an outspoken supporter of the red flag law, a rare conservative supporter in a red tide of backlash.
“Fast-forward to New Year’s Eve, 2017, where an individual we had been dealing with for three months — who had been medically hospitalized, who had been declared to be having mental health issues — was in possession of guns,” Spurlock told The Colorado Independent in August 2019. “He has a disturbance, calls us to his house, ambushes my deputies, kills Zack Parrish and shoots four others.”
Just south of Douglas County, however, Teller County Sheriff Jason Mikesell takes up an opposing position. In a February statement, he said that he didn’t support the law the way it was written, and was joining “several other Colorado Sheriffs who are also opposed to this legislation.”
Teller County commissioners have additionally passed a resolution establishing Teller as a Second Amendment Sanctuary. As of 2016, Teller County has been estimated as the eighth most armed county in the United States, with 52.3% of its 20,555 residents owning firearms.
Back on East County Line Road in Longmont, the controversy the red flag law has created reflects the spirit of a deeply divided nation engulfed in a heated debate over guns countrywide.
For some gun owners like Robert in Weld County, who says he hunts for almost all his food, potential firearm seizure is a nightmare scenario. Watching from the worn porch of an old ranch house as a storm rolled in over the Flatirons, Robert hinted at the potential for resistance against Colorado’s red flag law to turn violent.
“Not everybody has my mindset. I obey the laws,” he said. “But there are some old boys around here who won’t take it. This is the only protection we have. You’re talking Civil War.”