CORTEZ – Montezuma County commissioners on Thursday declared the county a gun sanctuary in response to a proposed gun control law in the Colorado Legislature.
About 150 people filled the commissioners’ meeting room for public comment Thursday night, and about 10 others were in the county annex building, watching the proceedings on a live video feed.
Twenty residents spoke in favor of the resolution, and nine spoke against it. The Board of County Commissioners voted 3-0 in favor of the resolution.
Commissioner Larry Don Suckla said he hopes to have a county ordinance to back up the resolution within 30 days.
The resolution is based on commissioners’ conclusion that Colorado House Bill 1177, a proposed “red flag” law, violates the Colorado and U.S. constitutions’ rights to gun ownership and due process.
It says Montezuma County is “a Sanctuary County for the Constitutional right to bear and keep arms.” It was signed by Commissioners Keenan Ertel, Jim Candelaria and Suckla, and County Clerk and Recorder Kim Percell.
Suckla said it “boiled down” to due process and protecting the rights of the Constitution.
He said the red flag bill, by allowing a gun seizure, “makes a person guilty until proved innocent. That breaks the Constitution and is not a law to follow.”
Does the resolution hold weight?It is doubtful that the resolution would carry any legal authority or will be enforced by the Montezuma County Sheriff’s Office.
During the weekly commissioners meeting Tuesday, Sheriff Steven Nowlin said he would support a resolution that opposed HB 1177, but he might not sign a resolution declaring the county a “sanctuary” because it would conflict with his sworn duty to enforce the law.
County Attorney John Baxter said gun sanctuary language tells residents HB 1177 would not be enforced. But without Nowlin’s signature, the county “legally doesn’t have a lot of ground to stand on,” Baxter said.
He said a sanctuary designation might lead to litigation against the county.
What the bill would doPassage of HB 1177 would create the ability for a family member, household member or law enforcement officer to petition the court for a temporary extreme risk protection order. The petitioner must present evidence under oath that a person poses significant risk to self or others by having a firearm in his or her custody.
The court must hold a temporary protection order hearing on the day the petition is filed or the day after, and the evidence must meet the “clear and convincing” standard. If the court issues the order, the person would have to surrender all of their firearms and concealed carry permit.
A second court hearing must be held within 14 days to determine whether the protection order should be continued for up to 364 days, during which time the person is prohibited from possessing a firearm. The court must provide an attorney for the person under the protection order during the hearing.
The person can motion the court once during the 364-day order for a hearing to terminate the protection order. The respondent has the burden of proof at a termination hearing.
Public weighs inThursday’s meeting lasted more than two hours, and 30 members of the public spoke.
Loud applause accompanied pro-gun statements, with the occasional shout from the crowd. Proponents speaking for red flag laws, or against the county’s sanctuary approach, also received cheers and applause.
Nowlin said he would protect the constitutional rights of the community.
“Upholding the Constitution is what protects our rights and gives us our freedoms, and I will be there for you,” he said.
Nowlin said he doesn’t support HB 1177, but he could not sign a resolution that contained the word “sanctuary” because it would imply the county is outside state law. The sheriff takes an oath to uphold state law.
He said certain mental illness cases have an element of being a civil matter, and red flag laws turn it into a criminal matter. As a strategy, his office works with family, friends and neighbors of a person suffering from mental illness to resolve the situation safely.
“And it has been working,” Nowlin said. “Because of the trust in this community, we are heading off problems, and my hat is off to everyone for your support.”
In their discussion, the commissioners were steadfast in their support for the gun sanctuary resolution.
While a resolution is effective at sending a message to the Legislature, Suckla said it is not strong enough.
“In 30 days, I also want to pass an ordinance that Montezuma County is a gun sanctuary for Colorado and the U.S.,” he said.
Candelaria said the county is not breaking any law with the resolution. He rejected a claim to slow down in the decision.
“Our rights are being eroded, and when you slow down, you get run over,” he said. “I don’t think HB 1177 addresses mental health issues.”
Candelaria supported passing the sanctuary resolution that included all constitutional rights, but then agreed to go with the one specific to protecting the right to bear arms.
“We are sending a message to Denver to listen to us, and that we have a right to our freedoms,” he said.
Ertel said he felt the red flag bill was trying to circumvent the Constitution to gain gun control and was unfairly using mental illness as a way to justify it.
“I think that is the motive. By disarming a nation, it is easily controlled,” he said. “I am also of the mind to pass another one and keep reiterating to the Legislature about our belief in the Constitution down here.”
The county commissioners will send the resolution to the state Legislature and include a letter addressing the need for more mental health services.
The letter says that the county recognizes the legitimate need to help those struggling with issues pertaining to mental health and the county has one of the highest overdose death rates.
“The county’s elected officials urge the assembly to spend resources to aid mental health and the substance use crisis rather than compromise the rights of law-abiding citizens,” the letter says.