Even as they unveiled a long-awaited slate of gun-control measures, Colorado Democrats acknowledged they will face a tough road to passage in this firearm-friendly state.
Lawmakers plan to introduce the eight bills as early as today, including measures that would require background checks for all gun purchases; ban new high-capacity magazines; hold manufacturers, sellers and owners of assault weapons liable for their use; and strengthen mental-health services.
“The legislation we’re talking about today will be a fight, it will be an uphill challenge,” state Representative Rhonda Fields said yesterday, flanked by relatives of massacre victims from a Newtown, Connecticut, school and an Aurora, Colorado, movie theater. “But I believe in my heart it is a fight we can and we will win.”
The campaign in Colorado, where mass shootings at Columbine High School and the Aurora theater were among the worst in U.S. history, previews a national battle over firearms restrictions, as advocates including President Barack Obama push Congress for new laws.
“If it were to pass in Colorado first, it might be taken as a barometer for support in the U.S.,” said Robert Spitzer, author of “The Politics of Gun Control” and a political science professor at the State University of New York at Cortland. “Colorado is a competitive state and viewed as a bellwether for the nation politically.”
While Democrats control the Colorado House and Senate, and polls show a majority of residents support universal background checks for firearms purchases, lawmakers championing gun control acknowledge there are obstacles to passing tighter laws.
Republicans and Democrats alike in this Western state are avid sport shooters. Governor John Hickenlooper and Senator Michael Bennet, both Democrats, go pheasant hunting together. Commissioners in several counties and sheriffs across Colorado recently vowed they won’t support more state gun restrictions, saying such measures would violate their Second Amendment right to bear arms.
“None of these ideas make anyone safer,” said Senator Greg Brophy, a Republican farmer from Wray, about 170 miles (274 kilometers) east of Denver, following the Democrats’ briefing with reporters yesterday. “I think they’re going to try to railroad these bills right through.”
Democrats hope to capitalize on anti-gun sentiment that followed the July 20 bloodbath at an Aurora cinema where 12 were killed and 58 wounded, and the Dec. 14 shooting in Newtown where 26 died, including 20 children. Hickenlooper suggested in his state-of-the-state speech last month that legislators discuss expanding background checks.
Colorado’s role as a reluctant barometer for gun-control legislation -- residents passed a ballot initiative requiring background checks for all sales at gun shows following the 1999 shootings at Columbine, where 15 died -- is already evident behind the scenes at the state legislature.
Messages from firearms’ rights supporters who live outside the state denouncing Fields’ plans for gun-control legislation started stacking up on her voice mail and e-mail last month.
“At this point, I’m getting more noise from people who don’t want to see common-sense reform,” said Fields, whose district includes the Aurora theater and whose son and his fiancée were killed in a 2005 shooting.
Gun-control supporters are also marshaling in Denver, the state capital. Mayors Against Illegal Guns, a national organization affiliated with New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, hired a Denver-based firm to lobby in support of Democrats’ efforts for gun reform. Bloomberg is founder and majority owner of Bloomberg News parent Bloomberg LP.
At the news briefing yesterday, Colorado Democrats employed relatives of the shooting victims to press their case, including Jessica Watts, cousin of Jonathan Blunk, a Navy veteran killed in the Aurora theater shooting, and Jane Dougherty, a Colorado resident whose sister, Mary Sherlach, was a school psychologist killed in Newtown.
“I’m 28 years old and I have seen in my life and been touched by not one, or two, but four, gun violence instances,” Watts told reporters. Her husband was a student at Columbine High School who escaped the shooting; she babysat Emily Keyes, a Platte Canyon High School student shot dead in 2006; she lost her cousin, Blunk, in the Aurora shooting; and sitting next to him in the theater was a former school classmate.
Colorado voters, an almost equal mix of Republicans, Democrats and independents, chose Obama last year, yet are far from united on how to curb gun violence. Views differ widely from downtown Denver to farmland on the Eastern plains.
Advocates on both sides of the debate are rallying supporters to lobby residents and lawmakers. Groups that formed in the aftermath of the Columbine shooting came together again after the Aurora killings to make their voices heard.
“We are all hunters and cherish the privilege of being able to use firearms to pursue recreation and food for our families,” reads a petition signed by members of Hunters Against Gun Violence. “Nevertheless, we do not support the proliferation of guns that have no relationship to, or utility for, lawful hunting of game animals and varmints.”
The group supports a ban on “the sale of large-magazine, semi-automatic weapons” as well as universal background checks for gun purchases, the petition said.
“There is a middle ground to this, not everyone who has a gun and is a hunter is a gun fanatic and holds the position of the NRA,” said Don Macalady, who heads the group, referring to the National Rifle Association. The Golden resident and retired chemistry professor hunts with his wife and four children.
Gun-rights groups said they would work tirelessly to oust state legislators who vote for additional firearms laws.
“I think the question for the Democratic caucus is, ‘Are you really going to stake the 2014 elections on the gun issue?’” said Dudley Brown, executive director of Rocky Mountain Gun Owners, a Windsor, Colorado-based pro-gun group. “The Democratic party has done that before and they paid the price. They are going to pay the price again.”
Like their lawmakers, state residents are divided about whether there should be more freedom to possess guns in public places, or whether restrictions on firearms ownership would make people safer.
An association representing Colorado’s school districts didn’t take a position on a Republican-sponsored measure that would have allowed teachers to carry guns in classrooms because its urban members didn’t like it, while its rural ones did. The bill died in a Senate committee last month.
“There’s definitely two sides to this,” said Jane Urschel, deputy executive director of the Colorado Association of School Boards. “The values are conflicting, you have those who say guns are the total problem and others who say they might like to have a policy that would keep our children safer.”
After the armed-teacher measure was defeated on a party-line vote, several hundred teachers and educators attended a firearms training class sponsored by Rocky Mountain Gun Owners.
As teachers learned to shoot, an association representing Colorado’s 62 sheriffs distributed a position paper delineating their views on possible gun-control legislation in the state capital.
“The County Sheriffs of Colorado know firsthand that strict gun-control laws do not deter criminals from getting firearms illegally and committing crimes,” the paper reads. “Rather, they hurt law-abiding citizens who may be left unprotected because law enforcement cannot arrive in time to stop a criminal’s bullet once he has pulled the trigger.”
-- Editors: Jeffrey Taylor, Pete Young