Colorado begins the task of implementing its toughest gun laws in a decade even as police searched for a suspect, and a motive, in the shooting death of the state’s top prisons official.
Governor John Hickenlooper signed bills requiring background checks on gun buyers and a ban on high-capacity ammunition magazines yesterday about 12 hours after Tom Clements, 58, was shot to death when he answered the door at his home north of Colorado Springs.
“Everybody got their guns out” after word of the killing shortly before 9 p.m. began to spread, said neighbor Mary Ann Drexler. While her family usually keeps a shotgun locked away, she said, “we slept with our gun in the bedroom.”
The Clements shooting illustrated why the bills, fiercely opposed by gun-rights advocates, were necessary, said Hickenlooper, 61. In a televised news briefing, the first-term Democrat said the killing, while not appearing to be connected with the new laws, was “an act of intimidation.”
With the stricter controls, which reflect two of President Barack Obama’s key policy goals, Colorado joins New York as the second state to enact tough legislation following the deaths of 12 people in an Aurora, Colorado, movie theater last year and the Dec. 14 shootings of 20 schoolchildren and six educators in Newtown, Connecticut’s Sandy Hook Elementary School.
“What we have signed today are several bills that materially make our state safer and allow us to begin to address some of these issues head on,” Hickenlooper told reporters yesterday. Both take effect July 1.
The Clements shooting occurred in a forested subdivision with views of Pikes Peak about 50 miles south of Denver, near the town of Monument. The neighborhood of winding roads and two- acre lots is known as Bent Tree. The home isn’t visible from the street.
The El Paso County Sheriff’s Office said in a statement it received a 911 call at 8:47 p.m. on March 19 reporting a shooting at the Clements residence.
“We are sensitive to the high profile position in which Mr. Clements served and the fact there could be people who would target him based on his position,” the office said. “However, we remain open minded to all investigative possibilities.”
An unoccupied car, with the motor running, was seen by a neighbor near the Clements home about 15 minutes before the 911 call, the sheriff’s office said. It was gone a few minutes later. The vehicle was described as a black or dark late-model, two-door similar to a 1990s Lincoln.
The sheriff’s office was joined in the investigation by the FBI and the U.S. Marshals Service.
Hickenlooper appointed Clements executive director of the Corrections Department in 2011, after 31 years working in the Missouri prison system.
He started his career in 1979 as a parole officer, became chief probation officer and later supervised all of Missouri’s prisons, said George Lombardi, the director of the department.
“Tom was a very decent, ethical, kind person,” Lombardi said in a telephone interview.
Clements is survived by his wife, Lisa, and their two daughters, Rachel and Sara, Hickenlooper said in a statement.
His death comes at a time of ferment in gun-control politics in the nation and the state, where -- in addition to the Aurora massacre -- 15 people died in a 1999 attack at Columbine High School near Denver.
More than 600 gun-related bills have been introduced in U.S. states this year, a 63 percent increase compared with the same period last year, the San Francisco-based Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence said in a statement.
Colorado is one of 17 states that have introduced measures in 2013 to ban or strengthen existing restrictions on large- capacity ammunition magazines, and it is one of 16 to introduce legislation on background checks, the group said.
Hickenlooper released a statement after the bill-signing seeking to clarify the new law that outlaws any ammunition magazine manufactured or purchased after July 1 that is capable, or can be converted to accept, more than 15 rounds.
“Similar language is used in other states’ statutes limiting large-capacity magazines,” the governor said. “We know that magazine manufacturers have produced and sell magazines that comply with these other state laws that limit large capacity magazines and we are aware of no successful legal challenges to those laws.”
Colorado sheriffs and hunters contend the law is ambiguous and could be construed to outlaw all magazines. The ammunition limit “bans a broader class of firearms and firearm accessories than the bill sponsors intended,” wrote Jonathan M. Anderson, an attorney for Holland & Hart on behalf of Erie, Colorado-based Magpul Industries Corp. in a March 15 letter to Hickenlooper.
“HB 1224, as written, would be one of the most expansive gun bills implemented in the United States,” Anderson wrote before the signing, asking the governor to veto the bill. Magpul, Colorado’s largest firearm-accessories maker, has threatened to leave the state if the measure was enacted.
Republicans fought the proposals, saying they were overly broad, did nothing to improve safety and infringed on Second Amendment rights.
Rocky Mountain Gun Owners, a Windsor, Colorado-based advocacy group, wrote to supporters in an e-mail that it “is going to need your help in repealing these draconian laws.”
“Make sure you stay updated with us as we unveil the plan for the 2014 elections with our PAC later this week,” it said, referring to its political-action committee. “Then, make sure you stay involved as we work to retire the gun-grabbers at the capitol.”
El Paso County Sheriff Terry Maketa, whose office is in charge of the Clements investigation, has said he opposes gun restrictions because the Second Amendment is “non-negotiable.”
“It is very disturbing to witness so many that have taken the same oath I have, to now flip flop and use tragedies such as the Sandy Hook school shooting to further their personal agenda and very flawed thought process,” he wrote in an essay on his website before the shooting.
Debra Reed, a spokeswoman for the Washington-based Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, said the Clements killing proved why such laws are crucial.
“This is incredibly sad irony that this has taken place less than 24 hours before the governor planned to sign meaningful gun legislation,” she said. “There is no better illustration of what damage guns can do in the wrong hands.”
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