By: Alex DeWind

Jane Dougherty’s sister, a school psychologist, was one of 26 people killed in the 2012 mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newton, Connecticut. On March 18, Doughtery, a Littleton resident, stood in a room of roughly 200 people and pleaded for Douglas County leaders to take action on gun violence.

“What we have become is a reactive society,” said Doughtery. “If we just keep arguing that someone has the right to bear arms, more people are going to die.”

Contemporary Issues, an adult Sunday school class at St. Andrew United Methodist Church in Highlands Ranch, 9203 S. University Blvd., hosted the forum, called “Protection of Law Enforcement, Churches and the General Community From Potentially Unstable Individuals.” The Nov. 5 shooting at a church in rural Texas that left 26 dead and the Dec. 31 shooting in Highlands Ranch that killed a Douglas County deputy prompted organizers to host the event, which was open to the public.

On a stage in an open room, sat four panelists: District Attorney George Brauchler; Douglas County Sheriff Tony Spurlock; Andrew Romanoff, CEO of Mental Health Colorado, an organization that advocates for the prevention, diagnosis and treatment of mental health and substance-use disorders; and Mary Blegen, a volunteer at Colorado Ceasefire, a gun-violence prevention group that promotes responsible firearm ownership.

Attempts to invite six state representatives and senators were unsuccessful, said Steve Baska, a member of the Sunday school class.

“Which was disappointing to us because it makes it look like they are afraid to discuss the issue,” he said.

A moderator asked panelists a series of questions on the prevention of gun violence, mental health and early intervention by the sheriff’s office when dealing with a mentally ill person.

Panelists discussed possible new gun control laws, such as the Extreme Risk Protection Order, which allows police or family members to petition a state court to order a temporary removal of firearms from someone who is a risk to themselves or others. A version of the statute is currently in place in five states: California, Washington, Oregon, Indiana and Connecticut. There was also talk of the bill to ban bump stocks in Colorado, which was scheduled to have its first committee hearing on March 19. A bump stock is an attachment that allows a semi-automatic rifle to work as a fully automatic weapon.

ERPO addresses a temporary crisis situation, said Blegen, a former nurse, adding, “Colorado needs better mental health care.”

Romanoff had a similar outlook. Colorado needs better mental healthcare, and cutting state and federal public healthcare programs would be a step in the wrong direction, he said.

“Most people with mental illness are not violent,” said Romanoff. “But there is a fraction of folks and we ought to make harder for them to get firearms and easier for them to get treatment.”

Brauchler said he wants to stop the wrong people from getting weapons, but he doesn’t want pass laws that “infringe on people’s liberty.”

“It should be up to the state to determine if a person is a danger to himself or someone else,” he said.

Spurlock pointed out tools the sheriff’s office has implemented to address mental illness. Last year, a community-response team — comprising a law enforcement officer, a paramedic and a mental health professional and case manager — was formed to respond to mental health calls.

“I ask you to call us,” Spurlock said, “because we can intervene.”

Some audience members were surprised by the forum’s turnout. Several people attended to educate themselves and see where county leaders stand on the issue. They agree that something needs to change to prevent more deaths from gun violence.

“I thought it was an interesting forum,” said Laura Reeves, a Highlands Ranch resident and member of Moms Demand Action, a grassroots organization that promotes gun reforms. “As a mom, I want to see bump stock bans.”

Kathy Kilmer said the event was timely, following the Feb. 14 school shooting in Parkland, Florida, that left 17 people dead.

“I’m just thrilled that so many people came out,” said Kilmer, a member of the church. “I think it really resonates here because of all the gun violence in Colorado.”

Article originally appeared on the Centennial Citizen.