Sheriff on gun law: I'll go to jail to protect the Constitution

When I began my career in law enforcement 22 years ago, I swore to uphold the Constitution of the United States and the Constitution and laws of the state of Colorado. As a young sheriff’s deputy, I interpreted that oath as something that gave me the power to enforce the law.

Little did I know how wrong I was.

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Over the years, I was fortunate to work for, and with, honorable people who helped me to understand that enforcing the law is a balancing act of ensuring the public’s safety but doing so within the confines of our founding documents — those two constitutions. In my years with the Weld County Sheriff’s Office, I have responded to thousands of calls for service and had the opportunity to understand that not every situation can be fixed by enforcement of the law or the creation of new laws.  

Most law enforcement officers, no matter their political beliefs, understand the oaths that they have sworn to uphold and believe in their role to protect the citizens of their communities. Law enforcement officers aren’t just blind enforcers of the law; they are problem-solvers first. Fortunately, I have been given the opportunity to repeat my oath to uphold the U.S. and state constitutions and laws of Colorado as the elected sheriff in 2015 and again at the beginning of 2019.

Now, the Colorado Legislature has passed a “red flag” bill (Colorado House Bill 19-1177) that has been sent to Gov. Jared PolisJared Schutz PolisColorado becomes first state to cap out-of-pocket insulin costs School awards honorary diploma to student killed in Colorado school shooting Colorado secretary of state bans employees from traveling to Alabama after abortion law MORE to sign into law. The bill was introduced as a measure to deal with people who are believed to be a danger to themselves, or others because they are in possession of a firearm or could come into possession of a firearm.

A hard review of Colorado’s version of the “red flag” bill immediately caused tremendous concern, as it was an obvious attack on the Second Amendment rights of citizens disguised as a mental health bill, but it also had obvious violations of the Fourth, Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments.

The law was advertised as a mental health bill that would give law enforcement a tool to help people in need. Yet, a true read of the bill exposes that it appears to be unconstitutional and therefore unenforceable. The bill allows for a person’s firearms to be ordered confiscated through a simple hearing where a preponderance of the evidence must be presented to convince a judge that the individual is a significant risk to themselves or others by having possession of a firearm. If a judge agrees, law enforcement officers are ordered to remove that person’s firearms and are provided with a search warrant to do so.

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The biggest problem in all of this? Individuals whose firearms are confiscated would not be notified of the initial hearings, would not be able to defend themselves against the accusations, and would not know that law enforcement had been ordered to take their firearms until officers contacted them.

As a citizen of Colorado, this law creates many concerns for me. But as a sheriff who would be expected to utilize this law, and carry out court orders arising from it, I have far more concern. The red flag law in Colorado has so many portions that are unconstitutional that enforcing it would require me to violate my oath of office — something that I am unwilling to do.

It has been argued by the law’s proponents that it is not my job to determine if a law is constitutional; it is simply my job to enforce it. Such a statement is a disservice to the fine men and women in law enforcement who take their oaths very seriously, and it erodes the very meaning of our U.S. Constitution and Bill of Rights.

I publicly took a stand as the red flag bill moved through the legislature that I would not enforce an unconstitutional law and would rather face the penalties for not doing so, even if it landed me in my own jail. I didn’t make the statement in jest or as a bluff; I took my stand to defend the citizens of my county from an unlawful overreach by Colorado’s state government.

Apparently, adhering to my oath was a big deal, because the minute that my statements against the bill were picked up by the media, the story became international news. I find it ironic that upholding my oath has become newsworthy; it really explains why we have so many issues with politicians who swear to uphold an oath that is very similar to my own.

Many brave men and women have taken an oath, have fought for this country and made immense sacrifices to establish and maintain this great nation. We have a rock-steady founding document in the Constitution and the Bill of Rights which, when adhered to, provides us with a fairly simple path to govern ourselves in a fair, balanced manner that respects all.

I’ll continue to defend my stance against the red flag bill and risk the possibility of incarceration for not enforcing it, to ensure that I uphold my oath to the citizens of Weld County, Colo. I hope more elected officials will do the same.

Steven Reams is the sheriff of Weld County, Colo. He began his career with the Sheriff's Office in 1997. As sheriff, he oversees more than 350 employees to provide public safety services to more than 300,000 residents. He is responsible for the operation of the Weld County Jail and serves the courts of the 19th Judicial District. Follow him on Twitter @stevenreams.