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How red flag laws could help families grappling with guns and mental illness

While some states have "red flag" laws that allow a judge to temporarily remove a mentally ill person's access to guns, it's not easy to balance their rights with the need for public safety. Special correspondent John Ferrugia of Rocky Mountain PBS reports on how families wish they could have been more empowered to help ailing loved ones and prevent deadly violence.

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  • Nick Schifrin:

    Last February's shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School was just the latest example of a school shooting with prior concerns for the shooter's mental health.

    Some states have so-called red flag laws that allow a judge to temporarily remove a mentally ill person's access to guns.

    As John Ferrugia of Rocky Mountain PBS reports, it's not easy to balance the rights of the mentally ill with the need for public safety.

  • John Ferrugia:

    Those who knew Matthew Riehl knew he was mentally ill, but never imagined him to be a killer.

    Last New Year's Eve in a Denver suburb, after he called 911 claiming that his roommate verbally assaulted him, Riehl spun out of control, barricaded himself in his room with guns, and was judged by deputies to be a threat to himself and to others.

    That is Colorado's standard for forcing involuntary mental health treatment. But when they tried to take him into custody:

  • Man:

    Open the door. Sheriff's office!

    (GUNFIRE)

  • John Ferrugia:

    Hundreds of rounds were fired.

    One deputy, Zack Parrish, died. Four others were wounded, along with two civilians in the apartment complex where he was holed up.

    In a subsequent shoot-out with a SWAT team, Matthew Riehl also died, ending his long descent into mental illness.

  • Susan Riehl:

    He did very well in school. He graduated from C.U. Denver magna cum laude.

  • John Ferrugia:

    After graduating, he moved to Wyoming, where he loved to hunt and fish, and he enrolled in law school. His future was bright. He had friends. He joined the National Guard as a medic, eventually deploying to Iraq.

  • Susan Riehl:

    Even after he came home, he always kept his medic bag in his car in case he needed to help anybody.

  • John Ferrugia:

    But his mother, Susan Riehl, says Iraq changed him.

    His medical records show he exhibited PTSD and anxiety related to his service.

  • Susan Riehl:

    I don't think he was mentally ill until after he came back.

  • John Ferrugia:

    In 2014, after he finished law school and was working in a private firm, Matthew Riehl had his first mental break. His mother found him secluded in his home believing the end of time was coming. She convinced him to go to a Veterans Affairs hospital in Wyoming for mental health treatment.

    And she removed several guns from his house for safekeeping.

    What were you concerned about?

  • Susan Riehl:

    Just that he could harm himself or others, or that it was probably not a good idea for somebody who was mentally ill to have guns.

  • John Ferrugia:

    But he didn't stay long in VA treatment, first walking away, then checking himself out. And, soon after, he moved into the basement of his parents home in Colorado.

    Records provided by the family show that he was receiving private outpatient mental health treatment and was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, but wasn't suicidal or homicidal.

    Then, in early 2017, his mother says he stopped taking his medication.

  • Susan Riehl:

    He became more reclusive. He stopped eating meals with the family, and just wanted to be left alone.

  • John Ferrugia:

    The family became concerned and a little scared by his erratic behavior, so they reached out to the local Lone Tree, Colorado, Police Department.

  • Susan Riehl:

    We were hoping they could offer us some assistance to get him help. They went to the house and tried to talk to him, and that was what precipitated him moving out.

    For a long time, we didn't know where he was.

  • John Ferrugia:

    Afraid?

  • Susan Riehl:

    Afraid, concerned, but unable to do anything, because we had no ability to do anything to help him.

  • John Ferrugia:

    Around the same time, Matthew also began sending bizarre and apparently threatening messages to his former law school professors at the University of Wyoming, and harassing the Lone Tree Police Department and city officials. That brought in the local sheriff's department.

  • Tony Spurlock:

    Through the process of conducting the investigation, we had our community response team, which is a mental health response team, attempt to engage him, with no success.

  • John Ferrugia:

    Tony Spurlock is Douglas County sheriff.

  • Tony Spurlock:

    We had a number contacts and interviews with him through the doors or via phone.

  • John Ferrugia:

    But under Colorado law, the district attorney couldn't act because Riehl was not an imminent danger to himself or others, that is, a danger right now.

    In an e-mail, the DA told the sheriff's department: "We have to balance the suspect's First Amendment rights, especially given the wide latitude since we are public servants, with the Lone Tree police rights."

    So, police took precautions.

  • Susan Riehl:

    I know that the Lone Tree police had sent out a bulletin to all law enforcement around Colorado.

  • John Ferrugia:

    That alert, noting Matthew's mental health and anger with law enforcement, could be seen by responding officers on their compute. That is why four Douglas County deputies, not just one, showed up on New Year's Eve, when Matthew Riehl called 911, because they knew he could be dangerous.

    While the Riehl family and the sheriff disagree on tactics used that night and whether breaking into his bedroom was necessary, they agree that the incident could have been prevented long before New Year's Eve.

  • Susan Riehl:

    He knew the law, and he never did anything to cross the line that would make it possible for us to get him help.

  • Tony Spurlock:

    Well, I think if we were to adjust our statute, we would have been able to intervene much earlier and most likely would have been able to eliminate the situation on New Year's Eve from occurring.

  • John Ferrugia:

    Spurlock is talking about what is known as a red flag law. Nine states have statutes allowing law enforcement or the family of a mentally ill person to petition a judge for involuntary mental health treatment based on a pattern of behavior, and to store guns for safekeeping, until the judge determines mental health is restored.

  • Mara Elliott:

    If there are sufficient warning signs, we can now get a gun violence restraining order. We don't have to wait for another crime to occur.

  • John Ferrugia:

    Mara Elliott is city attorney of San Diego. In the first five months since the law went into effect in California in December 2017, there were 26 successful petitions in her city for involuntary treatment of mentally ill persons who were deemed to show a pattern of threat or concern who had access to guns.

  • Mara Elliott:

    It's a measure to keep that person safe, and people around that person safe, and allow them the opportunity to get help.

  • John Ferrugia:

    And she says there are safeguards built in to protect the rights of the mentally ill, including a hearing within 21 days of the petition to the court. Neither police, the city attorney, nor the family makes the decision.

  • Mara Elliott:

    We need to prove to the satisfaction of a judge that there is a legitimate concern here that somebody is going to be a threat to themselves or to someone else. We're worried about lives here.

    So we have that burden of proof. On the flip side of it, the gun owner also has an opportunity to come to the court and tell their side of the story, to put their conduct into context.

  • Tony Spurlock:

    We need that red flag law.

  • John Ferrugia:

    You need a lower statutory threshold.

  • Tony Spurlock:

    We need a change in the statute to save lives.

  • John Ferrugia:

    According to the Colorado Department of Human Services, in 2017, more than 34,000 persons in the state were deemed an imminent danger to themselves or others and placed on a 72-hour mental health hold and forced into a emergency treatment program.

    Over the decade, there has been an increase of more than 300 percent.

  • Arlene Holmes:

    We don't fit people's picture of what the parents of a mass murderer is.

  • John Ferrugia:

    Bob and Arlene Holmes are the parents of James Holmes, the Aurora, Colorado, theater shooter who in 2012 killed 12 people and wounded scores of others.

  • Arlene Holmes:

    We have had people say to us we thought these mass murderers must come from abused homes, but we know you and you never abused.

  • John Ferrugia:

    They have been working quietly with mental health groups and lobbying legislatures and Congress for more mental health funding. They have also worked to loosen federal privacy laws so that providers aren't afraid of being sued for talking to families about the care of their adult children.

    Arlene was horrified when she found out the psychiatrist who was treating James never told them their son was having homicidal thoughts or talking about killing a lot of people. He was an adult, entitled to his privacy by federal laws protecting medical information.

    Do you think, if you were given that information, do you think this would have happened?

  • Arlene Holmes:

    God, if we could fly back there and ensure that he was hospitalized, who can say 100 percent that us could have prevented it, but we sure as hell would have tried.

  • John Ferrugia:

    But they also blame themselves for their son's actions.

  • Arlene Holmes:

    It's our fault for not being educated. If you're going to have a baby, you need to understand mental health. And you need to start looking for things and making sure that your kid has no mental health issues.

  • John Ferrugia:

    State legislatures across the country, including Colorado, are wrestling with the nexus of mental illness and guns.

    Do you believe, if you had a red flag law prior to this incident, that both your deputy and Matthew Riehl might be alive today?

  • Tony Spurlock:

    I do, because I think, if we had it, we would have taken him into custody when he was threatening the Lone Tree Police Department.

  • John Ferrugia:

    Opponents of such a law voted down a measure in Colorado this year, with the help of the gun lobby, charging that the due process rights of the mentally ill whose guns could be temporarily removed would be violated and that the rights of all gun owners could be in jeopardy as they see red flag laws as a move toward broader gun control.

    But for the Republican sheriff whose deputies were killed and wounded, it is about public safety.

  • Tony Spurlock:

    And if we had had it, we could have intervened then, and we could have done a lot of different things that we were not allowed to do based upon the law.

  • John Ferrugia:

    In Colorado, proponents vow to reintroduce a new bill next year, warning that, in the interim, there is a continuing risk of more fatal shootings involving mentally ill persons who may be a threat to themselves or to others.

    For the "NewsHour," I'm John Ferrugia in Denver.

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