Gov. John Hickenlooper on Tuesday unveiled proposals for comprehensive reforms to the state’s mental health system in the wake of senseless shootings in Colorado and across the nation that have ignited a polarizing conversation on prevention.
The dialogue set forth by the governor builds upon remarks he made last Friday to the Colorado Press Association in which he and legislative leaders unveiled their priorities for the session that begins on Jan. 9. Their remarks came on the same day news broke that a gunman murdered 20 small children and six more adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut. Adam Lanza, 20, is also accused of killing his mother and himself, bringing the death toll to 28.
Colorado is still grieving following a mass shooting in July at the Century 16 movie theater in Aurora that left 12 dead and 58 injured. Wounds also still run deep from the Columbine High School massacre of 1999 that left dead another 13 victims, as well as two shooters. And in Wisconsin, the Oak Creek community is still healing from a gunman who opened fire at a Sikh temple in August, killing six.
Speaking at the Capitol on Tuesday, surrounded by lawmakers and mental health professionals, Hickenlooper, a Democrat, said the state cannot stand inaction in the wake of recent violence.
“Emotions are extremely raw over the last few days across the country, and certainly the last five months in Colorado…” said Hickenlooper. “Now more than ever we need to have tough discussions about how to enhance our system to prove the safety of all Coloradans.”
The $18.5 million plan, which mostly must be approved by the legislature, includes five strategies:
• Align three statutes into one new civil commitment law, with the aim of clarifying options for providers of mental health and substance abuse services. The proposal would also authorize the real-time electronic transfer of mental health records delivered to the Colorado Bureau of Investigation for firearm purchase background checks. That data is currently sent only twice per year;
• Establish a single statewide mental health crisis hotline, as well as five 24/7 walk-in crisis stabilization centers;
• Expand hospital capacity to include a 20-bed jail restoration program in the Denver area;
• Develop community residential services for those transitioning from institutional care, and expand case management for seriously mentally ill people. The plan also includes developing two 15-bed residential facilities for short-term transition from mental health hospitals to the community, and adding 107 housing subsidies for individuals with mental illness; and
• Building a trauma-informed culture of care that includes peer support, so-called “de-escalation rooms” at each of the state’s mental health hospitals, and developing a consolidated mental health and substance abuse data system.
“Ensuring that we’re providing the right services to the right people at the right time, we believe will mean healthier and safer communities and increased health and safety for those suffering from mental illness and substance abuse disorders,” said Reggie Bicha, executive director of the Department of Human Services.
The governor’s cabinet has the support of the mental health community, including former First Lady Jeannie Ritter, who serves as a mental health ambassador for the Mental Health Center of Denver. Ritter took the position after bringing unprecedented attention to mental health in Colorado, including the Mental Health is Health initiative, which has provided information to educate the public.
“These are not original thoughts; there are folks who have been working on these things for a long time… but it’s really meaningful to have some traction around it now,” Ritter said following the news conference. “And what’s really important is keeping the conversation forward moving…”
Rep. Beth McCann, D-Denver, said she will sponsor legislation enacting the civil commitment law portion of the plan, as well as legislation requiring the real-time transfer of mental health data for firearms purchases.
“I’m very optimistic because we do have the support of the governor, as well as mental health groups, that we’ll be able to be successful,” McCann said of a potential legislative battle over approving additional dollars for health care expansion and gun control in Colorado.
Sen. Greg Brophy, R-Wray, an ardent supporter of the Second Amendment, said he is willing to consider legislation that would enhance mental health reporting for firearms purchases.
“It sounds like a good idea to keep mental health records updated in real time, and in this day and age, there is no reason on earth not to do that,” he told The Colorado Statesman.
Gun control conversation continues
But the overall battle over gun control is likely to be contentious if lawmakers move forward with several proposals that are already floating. Ideas include banning assault weapons and the online purchase of high-capacity ammunition clips, as well as prohibiting handguns on college campuses.
Following the Aurora shooting, Hickenlooper had expressed a lack of desire to tackle gun control, suggesting that deranged criminals are going to get their hands on weapons no matter what the law. But he has since scaled back his response to indicate that he is willing to hold a discussion.
“There are a lot of arguments that people should have more guns, that that would make us safer,” Hickenlooper said on Tuesday. “But the young man in Connecticut, his mother had the guns in her house that he used to wreak such terrible tragedy.”
Brophy questioned whether Hickenlooper hasn’t changed his stance to the point where the governor may assist with efforts to ban guns in Colorado.
“Does he want to come to my house and get mine?” asked Brophy, who keeps a gun collection. “It’s what it looks like he’s trying to do. Whether he does it slowly or quickly is the only question I have in my mind.
“The Democrats and some of their leftist allies in the media want to advance their anti-gun ideology and advance their political prospects on the backs of these tragedies, maybe even more than they want to implement policies that will really help,” Brophy continued. “And I hope that we don’t lose the latter in the debate over the former.”
At the pre-legislative forum last Friday, Hickenlooper was visibly emotional in sending his prayers to the victims of Sandy Hook Elementary. He bowed his head at the beginning of the forum and called for a moment of silence.
“It does put into perspective whatever else we may discuss… We know here, perhaps more than anywhere, that when you have just a horrific and heartbreaking event like this, there are no words to adequately express what we feel,” the governor told a room full of reporters at the Crowne Plaza in downtown Denver.
Immediately, a difference of opinion surfaced from legislative leaders. Senate Majority Leader-designee John Morse, D-Colorado Springs, who is a former police officer, said that while he is opposed to banning firearms, he does not see the benefit in allowing assault weapons.
“Using an assault weapon, you’re using a weapon that was designed to hunt human beings. It’s not designed to hunt elk, it’s not designed to hunt deer, it’s not designed to hunt antelope, and in fact, if you use it for that, that’s not sporting,” said Morse.
Senate Minority Leader Bill Cadman, R-Colorado Springs, cautioned against rushing to new gun control laws.
“The real bottom line here is there’s 300 million people in this country, 7 billion people around the world, someone, somewhere is planning to do harm to somebody on any given day, and all the laws in the world aren’t going to stop it,” said Cadman. “Criminals will still do criminal acts — that’s what makes them criminals.”
Meanwhile, on the federal level, U.S. Reps. Diana DeGette, D-Denver, and Ed Perlmutter, D-Golden, are taking steps to increase gun control.
Perlmutter on Tuesday said he will co-sponsor legislation to reinstate a ban on assault weapons that expired in 2004.
“It’s time to do more. It is Congress’ responsibility to lead, and it’s time for me to take action,” he said in a statement. “This is about crime control and doing what we can to deter and prevent the kinds of tragedies we’ve experienced all too often in the last few years.”
DeGette has also been pushing for federal legislation to ban high-capacity ammunition clips.