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Guns and mental health: Should the courts weigh in on gun access for people in a mental health crisis?

Fourteen states have laws that allow police or family members to get court orders that can help temporarily take guns from those deemed a threat to themselves or others.

DENVER — Conversations about gun violence in the United States often lead to talks about mental health and whether anything can or should be done to prevent people in crisis from using their firearms to hurt themselves or others.

According to reports, in January of this year, U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio said he would reintroduce a bill that would encourage states to pass so-called “red flag” laws, which would make it easier for law enforcement or family members, with the help of courts, to temporarily disarm people experiencing a mental health crisis.

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Florida, where last February a gunman killed 17 people and injured 17 others, is one of 14 states that now have laws that allow police or family members to seek court orders that can help temporary take guns from those deemed a threat to themselves or others.

Legislators in Colorado, where in 2017 a heavily-armed man with a history of mental illness killed sheriff’s deputy Zack Parrish and injured four other law enforcement officers, weren’t able to pass a red flag bill in 2018, despite strong Republican support.

The state, now controlled by Democrats, is expected to resurrect the effort during the 2019 legislative session.

Supporters of the legislation say it could save lives. Critics maintain such laws infringe on the rights of lawful gun owners and could disarm people who need weapons for self-protection.

An Imperfect Union traveled to Denver to talk to two people who have personal experience with gun violence that shaped their opinions and impacted their lives.

One believes no additional gun regulation legislation is necessary, and another believes law enforcement should have the ability to temporarily remove a firearm from a person who has been deemed a danger to himself or others. 

Evan Todd

Evan Todd is a survivor of the Columbine High School shooting. He said he was the first student shot in the library and the last student to talk to the two killers.

“One of them put a gun to my head and said, ‘Why shouldn't we kill you?’” Todd said. “I told them, ‘I've been good to you.’ They went back and forth for a minute, the two saying, ‘You can kill him if you want.’ And then ended up leaving the library and letting me live. But I was definitely praying to God and wondering if this was my last moment on Earth.” 

Todd said after the shooting, he wanted to find answers to what caused it – and if it could have been prevented.

“People definitely thought I would be 100 percent anti-gun,” Todd said. “I became on the other side of it, more of an advocate for firearms and the responsible ownership of them.

“When more firearm legislation is passed, it's not these evil doers who are turning in their guns and saying, ‘Oh it's against the law.’ Its law-abiding citizens who are then deprived of the right to protect their very life from those type of people,” he added.

Kelly Murphy

April 4, 2016, in Centennial, a suburb of Denver, Kelly Murphy’s older brother shot his wife and another woman, injuring them, and killed a man who came to their aid. 

“Kevin was a really protective older brother,” Murphy said. “If he was medicated properly he could be the most productive fun-loving guy ever. But when he wasn't, we would be concerned about his well-being.”

Murphy said Kevin Lyons was in his early 20's when he stared owning firearms. But when he and his wife began having children they decided it was not safe to have them in the home and he got rid of them.

“Weekend before the shooting happened, he was clearly exhibiting signs that something was very wrong,” Murphy said. “And unfortunately, families have very little they can do to intervene when something like that is happening. So, if the person also has access to a firearm, there's also nothing in place for law enforcement to intervene and say, ‘You know we feel this person is in a crisis and they probably shouldn't have a deadly weapon.’”

“People forget that we also are a victim's family,” Murphy added. “You know my sister-in-law was a victim. My nieces and nephews were victims in this tragedy also. They still love their dad too.”

Todd and Murphy meet to share their experiences and discuss their views on gun control. 

Watch how the conversation unfolds below:

Can't see the above video? Go here to watch the episode.

An Imperfect Union brings together two people on opposite sides of an issue to work on a project in their community. Watch full episodes on Facebook Watch every Wednesday at 8 p.m. ET. 

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