Families with a potentially suicidal child or adult, or that are experiencing a contentious divorce or another possibly dangerous situation can take advantage of a first-in-the-nation program that some are calling a preemptive step to ward off the use of Colorado's new red flag gun-control law.
A group of representatives from the University of Colorado School of Medicine, the Colorado School of Public Health and the Colorado Firearm Safety Coalition in Denver have created a statewide online map to help community members seeking local options for temporary, voluntary firearms storage.
Gunsmiths, firearm retailers, gun ranges and law enforcement agencies have agreed to be listed as locations that will store personal guns away from homes for a variety of reasons, not just self-harm or hurting others.
Gun owners who are going on vacation and don’t want to leave their weapons in their home, grandparents who have grandchildren visiting for the weekend or someone trying to sell their home and not wanting their guns around are among other likely users of the new system, said Dr. Emmy Betz, associate professor of emergency medicine at the University of Colorado School of Medicine on the Anschutz Medical Campus in Aurora.
Since the website, https://coloradofirearmsafetycoalition.org/gun-storage-map, went live nearly six months ago with some 50 storage safe-storage locations across the state, none have reported a bad experience or dropped out of the program, she said.
And 12 other states are looking into doing something similar, Betz added.
“There are times when this can be very useful,” she said.
The idea is based on another surrender program in which people can purposefully get rid of opioid drugs from their homes, the doctor said.
The program is not tied to Colorado’s new Extreme Risk Protection Order, known as the red flag law, Betz said, since it is “a voluntary, temporary option before you even get to that point” and “has nothing to do with confiscation or forced removal.”
The controversial red flag law, which took effect in Colorado Jan. 1, enables a family or household member or law enforcement to petition the state court system to temporarily take away guns from a person who “poses a significant risk to self or others by having a firearm in his or her custody or control” and further restricts “possessing, purchasing or receiving a firearm.”
However, willingly relinquishing guns from a home where a dangerous situation could develop could head off mandatory removal, said Tony Gorden, owner of GT Products LLC in Colorado Springs, which builds custom AR-15s, repairs semi-automatic rifles and is an online firearms distributor.
“Some people just get in the wrong frame of mind, and they need to put their weapons out of sight, out of mind,” he said. “The safe gun storage program is constitutional; instead of going to court and having to relinquish weapons, have one of us store them for you.”
Gorden has yet to have any takers, but he said he’s offering the service at no cost to anyone in need.
“We’re doing it strictly as a courtesy because it’s a helpful service, and if it saves one life, it’s worth it," he said.
Another Colorado Springs business on the list, JT Tactical Firearms and Gunsmithing, also has not had anyone request firearms storage, said owner Jake Tyrrell.
He views the new program as a “safe haven” setup, similar to dropping off newborns at fire stations that parents are unable to care for.
“If someone’s going to hurt themselves or someone else, absolutely I’ll hold their guns for them so they don’t do anything they’ll regret — but so they don’t lose their guns forever,” Tyrrell said.
Participants handle requests on a case-by-case basis in terms of cost, storage and paperwork, Betz said.
Tyrrell, who sells new and used firearms and provides customization and repairs, said he will not charge for short-term storage.
“Guns have such a bad reputation but there are more responsible gun owners than not,” he said. “This program is to help the extremes of it — military guys that have PTSD, people who catch their spouses with someone else. Things you don't see every day."
Dr. Erik Wallace, associate dean of the Colorado Springs branch of the CU School of Medicine a founder of the Colorado Springs Firearm Safety Think Tank, is convinced the tactic will help save suicidal teens and adults.
“Limiting access to lethal means at the time of a crisis” has the potential to reduce deaths by suicide, he said at the recent First Annual El Paso County Suicide Prevention Conference: A Call to Action.
A suicide attempt using a gun is more likely to be fatal, compared to using pills, by hanging or other methods, he said. Nationally, for every 100 people who attempt suicide by firearm, 90 will die, but just two people out of every 100 who attempt drug poisoning will die.
Of El Paso County’s 152 suicide deaths in 2018, 80 were at from self-inflicted gunshot wounds, Wallace said, based on El Paso County Coroner’s Office reports. Of those gunshot victims, 96% owned the firearm they used to take their life, and 65% committed suicide inside or outside their home.
In addition to mental health problems, relationship stress, financial issues, military exposure, sexual abuse, a criminal past, substance abuse and the suicide of a family member or friend often are involved in someone’s decision to turn to suicide, Wallace said.
The assumption that blocking one method will result in people switching to a different way to die by suicide is inaccurate, Wallace said.
“More accurate is that suicide is coupled to a particular context, specific circumstances and conditions,” he said.
After English poet Sylvia Plath placed her head in her home's gas oven in 1963 and died of carbon-monoxide poisoning, Great Britain began converting residential ovens from gas to electric.
“What they saw was the overall suicide rate in England declined from 120 people per million to 75 per million, a 37.5% reduction,” Wallace said.
“Suicide is an impulsive decision for most people,” he said, with research showing that only one of 10 people who attempt suicide will go on to complete suicide at another time.
“If we do nothing else but limit access to highly lethal means, we can reduce suicide.”
The governing board of Colorado's largest public school district, Denver Public Schools, on Jan. 23 approved a resolution supporting safe gun storage and agreed to send parents a letter about the importance of protecting minors "from accessing irresponsibly stored guns," to prevent youth suicide and school violence.
Betz also directed a project that created another new website, Lock to Live, which launched last week to provide information on various ways to secure guns and medications in homes.
The politics of firearms and sensitivity to the topic have led many health care providers to shy away from counseling patients with suicidal thoughts or behaviors about lethal means access, she said.
The CU School of Medicine on the Anschutz Medical Campus in Aurora worked with Grit Digital Health to build the website, which was tested in three emergency departments in Colorado over 10 months.
"Participants overwhelmingly found the tool to be useful, informative and respectful of their values with regard to firearm ownership," the pilot program concluded.
Founders hope it leads to widespread integration in suicide-prevention efforts among medical providers and organizations.
"Providing this tool to change how dangerous items are stored can make a big difference for people in crisis," said Betz. "This isn't about gun control; it's about helping people take action to keep themselves and their loved ones safe during tough times."