As It Happens

Why this Colorado sheriff refuses to enforce his state's new gun law

Weld County Sheriff Steve Reams says he'd rather go to jail than confiscate someone's legally owned firearm.

Weld County Sheriff Steve Reams says he'd rather go to jail than confiscate someone's firearm

Weld County Sheriff Steve Reams says Colorado's new gun laws, which come into effect next year, are unconstitutional. (Weld County Sheriff's Office )
Listen6:58

Transcript

Weld County Sheriff Steve Reams says he'd rather go to jail than confiscate someone's firearm.

Ream is refusing to enforce a new gun regulation signed into law on April 12 by Democratic Gov. Jared Polis.

Nicknamed the "red flag bill," it allows a family member, police officer, or anyone else close to a gun owner to petition a judge to temporarily seize their firearms if they are deemed a risk to themselves or others.

Reams is one of several sheriffs refusing to enforce the new law when it comes into effect on Jan. 1, 2020. Here is part of his conversation with As It Happens host Carol Off. 

Sheriff Reams, your job is to enforce the law. So why won't you enforce this one?

It's easy to say law enforcement should just be blind enforcers, but when something is obviously an affront to the United States Constitution and the Colorado Constitution, it puts me in a spot where I have to determine what I'll do.

And my decision has been that this law is not constitutional.

And you're willing to get locked up for making this point. Is that right?

Yes, ma'am. That's not my goal, obviously. And what I've said is that, you know, if this law puts me in a decision making point of, again, violating someone's constitutional rights or potentially violating a judge's order ... the penalty that can go along with violating a judge's order could be confinement in my own jail.

A new law in Colorado will allow police officers to seize legally owned firearms under certain circumstances. (Ontario Provincial Police)

Could you also lose your job?

The way that contempt is looked at in the state of Colorado is that it's not a criminal conviction.

I can only be removed from office in the event that I'm convicted of a criminal incident. Contempt will not be considered a criminal incident.

But I guess I could be recalled by the voters if they were unhappy with my stance on this particular issue.

It's called the "red flag" bill and this law would allow a judge to order someone's guns to be taken away temporarily if they are deemed a risk to themselves or to others, and is to be used only in extreme cases. What is wrong with that?

If the bill truly said that, that might not be as bad. But that's not really the way that the bill reads.

It says a person has to be a "significant risk" to themselves or others by being in possession ... of a firearm.

The problem with that whole setup is that mental health is never never addressed in the bill. Mental health treatment is never addressed on a bill. And the person who is the recipient of one of these orders isn't allowed to be present at that first hearing. 

So they don't get a chance to defend themselves or speak about their mental capacity or their potential to create a significant risk.

But it's up to a judge, right? This is not an arbitrary thing where you march in and you take the guns away from somebody. ... This is in cases where there is suspicion of mental illness, where someone might become violent or somebody might [take their own life]. And the ideas that they should not be able to keep their guns for a temporary period. So where does the problem come in for you?

It's in the actual text of the bill. The term "significant risk" is never defined. If it was defined as all of those things that you just said then, yes, potentially there would be more more merit to this bill.

But significant risk is different to you, it's different to me, it's different to a lot of people. 

But if there's any risk that this person could harm somebody or themselves, I mean, shouldn't you err on the side of perhaps being excessive? 

When a bill can fairly easily be misused against other people, you know, the argument of "Well, we were just erring on the side of caution" becomes a dangerous slippery slope.

There's a reason we have a second amendment. There's a reason we have gun rights in the United States. And this bill is is wholly effective at going out and trampling on those those gun rights. And it doesn't address the true problem, which is if that person is a significant risk, let's deal with the person.

In the event the two neighbours are upset with one another and I'm going to take that person's weapons and I leave, I can't imagine that makes the situation better.- Weld County Sheriff Steve Reams

But in the meantime, take away the tool that might actually do harm, maybe?

Well, that's another problem with this bill. You can take away the firearm, but you leave the person in place. 

So if in the event the two neighbours are upset with one another and I'm going to take that person's weapons and I leave, I can't imagine that makes the situation better.

This does sound like a conflict of rights, doesn't it? I mean, from a Canadian point of view, on the one side, the right to bear arms. On the other side, the right to be protected from harm. Wouldn't the right to be protected from harm ... be more important than someone's constitutional right to bear arms?

I can tell you that there are plenty of times that people use their right to bear arms to protect them from being harmed.

Colorado House Majority Leader Alec Garnett was one of the bill's sponsors and he says that rather than lose sleep over you and other sheriffs defying this law, he is more concerned about if "someone loses their life, someone in crisis goes on a shooting spree, or someone commits suicide because a gun was not taken away." What do you say to him?

I hope those same things don't happen because we haven't bolstered our mental health capacity here in the state of Colorado.

If a violent action occurs and a person drives a truck through a crowd, is he going to be any less concerned that we didn't deal with the mental health aspect of a person who needs treatment?

I think this is very short-sighted, and I understand that it's polarizing for many, but I just don't see firearms confiscation as being the answer to all violent crimes.

Written by Sheena Goodyear. Produced by Chris Harbord. Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.

Comments

To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.