When it comes to preventing gun violence, the cause hits close to home for District Attorney George Brauchler.
Brauchler has watched his 18th Judicial District endure multiple high-profile tragedies in recent years: the Aurora theater shooting; the fatal attack by a gunman at Arapahoe High School; the shooting death of Deputy Zackari Parrish; and most recently, the STEM School Highlands Ranch attack in which a student was fatally shot and eight others were wounded.
“I just remain baffled that some of these most noteworthy, most horrific acts of violence have taken place in, you know, the community I grew up in. The community that my kids are growing up in,” Brauchler said. “I know these people. They've been my neighbors and my community for my life, and I just don't understand why so much of it is happening here. Why us?”
Brauchler, a Republican who lives in Parker, is trying to do what he can, he said, without getting caught up or held back by hyperpartisan, hypercontentious debates over gun rights.
In the days after mass shootings in early August devastated El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio, Brauchler formed a plan to tackle gun violence in his district — but not through hotly debated approaches like an assault-weapons ban or raising the age at which one can purchase firearms. Rather, he decided to lean on existing state laws, and he specifically sharpened his gaze on the illegal sale of firearms, which is attempted thousands of times in Colorado each year.
In short, Brauchler wants diligent and early investigations into illegal firearm sales. He wants prison time for felons who try to or successfully obtain guns, instead of probation sentences laws hand down now. He wants law enforcement, firearm retailers and his office working closely together to get it all done.
Brauchler — whose district includes Arapahoe, Douglas, Elbert and Lincoln counties — said he isn't suggesting the plan will solve mass shootings, but he hopes it will serve as a launching pad toward curbing gun violence.
Douglas County Sheriff Tony Spurlock applauded Brauchler's call for gun-violence prevention but said the issues the district attorney is taking up make for a “huge undertaking” and will require collaboration among multiple agencies.
Arapahoe County Sheriff Tyler Brown called Brauchler's plan “a good step.”
“This is the low-hanging fruit of where we should be starting in tackling gun violence,” Brauchler said.
Brown believes attempts at illegal firearm purchases are a districtwide issue.
“I think people test the waters whenever they get the chance,” he said. “We need to make sure that convicted felons know we think this is a serious issue.”
The Colorado Bureau of Investigation operates a real-time background check called Instacheck that is conducted in the course of a firearm transaction. The vetting process takes an average of seven minutes.
A person prohibited by law from owning firearms — including felons, people dishonorably discharged from the military and those guilty of certain domestic violence crimes — are turned down.
CBI's Instacheck Unit issued 340,816 approvals and 6,279 denials in 2018. That was the lowest number of denials since 2014, when there were 6,068. As of July 2019, the agency issued 185,217 approvals and 3,953 denials.
Brauchler said Instacheck numbers clearly show people who shouldn't own firearms try to get them anyway.
CBI spokeswoman Susan Medina cautioned Colorado's number of denials trends higher than the national average because the Instacheck system looks at more databases than the system used by the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
The FBI conducts checks for most states, while CBI handles them for Colorado — one of 13 states called a point-of-contact state, where a state agency runs the checks.
The additional databases scoured by Instacheck include the Colorado Crime Information Center and local court records. CBI allows for people to appeal Instacheck results, Medina said, so some of these denials could have been overturned.
Despite the number of denials, which can indicate a person tried to get a gun illegally, those cases don't always make it to court, Brauchler said.
In one example, he recalled learning Elbert County sheriffs deputies hadn't investigated recent denials because they felt the law had worked — it had prevented a person from obtaining a weapon they shouldn't have.
In some situations, Brauchler says law enforcement is strapped for the resources and manpower needed to investigate each attempted illegal firearm purchase.
Brauchler is urging law enforcement agencies to quickly investigate when someone attempts to purchase a firearm but is denied by CBI during the Instacheck process.
“If you don't get law enforcement early on to do the investigation necessary to put the evidence together it doesn't come to my office as a chargeable case,” he said.
This district attorney also wants prison time for felons who attempt to obtain firearms. Today a felon can leave a courtroom after trying to buy a weapon and receive probation, he said, no matter how many times he or she does it.
The most common reason a person is denied during a background check is a conviction of a crime punishable by more than one year or a misdemeanor punishable by more than two years, according to data from the FBI's National Instant Criminal Background Check System.
“If we are serious about upholding the Second Amendment then we are going to be equally serious about punishing those who abuse it,” Brauchler said.
Brauchler also believes there needs to be additional protocols for how firearm sellers handle a CBI denial.
Brown envisions a checklist that they can follow, such as, make copies of all paperwork from the transaction, the individual's identification and archive surveillance video.
“We will be working with the district attorney's office and local firearm dealers to see how we can streamline this process and make it a little easier to have that open line of communication,” Brown said.
Josh Barton, vice president of sales and marketing for DCF Guns in Castle Rock, said there's one more way retailers and investigators could be working more closely.
When a person's background check is completed, it comes back as approved, denied or delayed, which means CBI needs to verify more information before making a determination.
But there's a fourth way someone's ability to buy a gun can be decided — through a dealer denial, Barton said.
There are instances in which a gun store decides against selling someone a weapon. Maybe the individual smells of drugs or alcohol. Sometimes customers make comments suggesting they plan to harm themselves or others.
Or, “any reason my staff feels uncomfortable,” Barton said,
DCF Guns rarely issues a dealer denial, Barton said, estimating it happens a couple times a year. Still, he thinks letting law enforcement know when gun stores encounter concerning people who weren't necessarily denied by background checks could help deter gun violence.
“That's kind of where I think there's an opportunity between dealers and local law enforcement,” he said. “We're just saying somebody should talk to you and make sure you're OK.”
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