The debate over gun control took center stage at the state legislature this week with controversial bills presented by Republicans seeking to curb efforts by Democrats to limit firearm possession.
The debate follows the July Aurora movie theater shooting, which claimed the lives of 12 and injured 58 others, and it has spilled into the national conversation, gaining momentum after the December Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting that left 20 children and six staff members dead in Newtown, Conn. On Wednesday, the issue gained more traction after Phoenix police said three people were injured in a morning shooting at an office building there.
Gun control is nothing new to Colorado. After the Columbine High School massacre in 1999 that ended with 12 students and one teacher dead, voters in 2000 backed an initiative requiring background checks at gun shows. But shortly after, the legislature relaxed gun laws by making it easier for people to carry concealed weapons and limiting the ability of towns and cities to pass tough gun regulation.
With Democrats in control of both chambers of the legislature this year, they hope to pass tough laws restricting firearm use. Much of the debate focuses around mental health. Proposals include :
• Making it easier for physicians to seek involuntary mental health commitments;
• Delivering mental health history for firearms background checks in real-time to the Colorado Bureau of Investigation; and
• Focusing on behavioral health and substance-abuse treatment.
But the thrust of the conversation will come in the form of bills specifically targeting firearms. Rep. Rhonda Fields, D-Aurora, is leading the effort for House Democrats. She lost her son, Javad Marshall-Fields, in 2005 after he was murdered along with his fiancée, Vivian Wolfe, before Marshall-Fields could testify against a man accused of murdering his friend.
Capitol insiders have said that Rep. Fields — who was first elected in 2010 — has found her voice this year through recent passionate cries for increased gun control. On Sunday, she stood in Denver alongside U.S. Rep. Diana DeGette, D-Denver, to outline two state bills she plans on introducing:
• Requiring universal background checks on firearms purchases to close a loophole that exempts private sales; and
• Banning high-capacity ammunition magazines that hold more than 10 rounds.
Fields would also like to see a ban on assault weapons, such as the AR-15 semi-automatic rifle. But she has refrained from introducing that bill after receiving pushback on how to define an assault weapon.
On Monday, Fields joined an estimated 100 supporters on the west steps of the Capitol to implore her fellow colleagues to support gun control and to reject efforts to increase access to guns.
“We don’t need to have high-capacity magazine clips. We know what they’re intended to do, they’re intended to kill as many people as you can in a brief amount of time,” Fields addressed the rally, organized by Together Colorado.
Her audience shouted their response: “Enough is enough.”
But Sen. Greg Brophy, R-Wray — a gun enthusiast who owns a large cache of weapons, including assault rifles — does not believe banning magazines or weapons would limit gun violence.
“The fact is that the Sandy Hook shooter was changing magazines sometimes after using only 10-15 rounds. He changed magazines when he changed rooms,” explained Brophy, who added that there are potentially tens of millions of high-capacity magazines in circulation, and that individuals can make their own magazines at home with few supplies.
“[Democrats] are going to concentrate on bills that advance their extreme agenda, and unfortunately, they’re not bills that make us any safer,” continued Brophy.
He pointed out that background checks in Colorado have soared in the wake of the violent tragedies, resulting in a backlog. Brophy believes that is an indication that Coloradans support gun rights.
Lawmakers are currently grappling with how to fund expanded background checks, which could inflate the system by as much as 40 percent. A proposal has been floated to require fees on background checks.
Brophy has countered with a bill — House Bill 1169, which he is co-sponsoring with Rep. Steve Humphrey, R-Severance — that would eliminate a background check requirement for people who have a concealed-carry permit. Similar efforts have failed in previous legislative sessions.
Senate Democrats are also considering gun control legislation, though no formal proposals have been suggested. On Monday, Senate President John Morse, D-Colorado Springs, told reporters that finding a balance would be difficult. He said if Senate Democrats were to offer a package of bills, it likely wouldn’t cover every issue.
“I’m trying to figure out what we could do that could actually have an impact, and how do we piece all that together,” Morse, a former police officer, said at an impromptu media availability. “I’m just not there yet. It’s possible I don’t get there because this is such a difficult problem.”
Morse also revealed that he does not have a concealed-carry permit, despite having carried a gun as an off-duty police officer.
“Somebody sticks a gun in my face, I’ll deal with it — maybe from a casket,” he exclaimed. “But by the time I reach down and grab my gun, I’m going to be quite shot, if not dead.”
In the meantime, Morse said Democrats are working to defeat gun bills introduced by Republicans that aim to expand access to firearms. He said those bills “aren’t good policy.”
“Adding guns is going to add shootings, and I’m for fewer shootings,” he said.
Morse’s comments came just hours before the Senate Judiciary Committee took up Senate Bill 9, which would have allowed school districts to decide whether teachers and other employees could legally carry weapons on school grounds if they have a concealed-carry permit. The committee rejected the measure on a party-line vote of 3-2.
Sens. Ted Harvey, R-Highlands Ranch, and Scott Renfroe, R-Greeley, carried the measure.
“Let’s be honest and clear, gun free zones have not been successful,” Renfroe told the committee. “Tragedy after tragedy, history after history, has shown us that they have not been successful, and so this would give a different opportunity for some school districts… to take that opportunity to protect their kids and to give their teachers the opportunity to protect themselves.”
Harvey, an ardent supporter of the Second Amendment, spoke of his wife, who is a Douglas County teacher, and his children, who attend public school there.
“My wife is one of those good guys; my wife is a teacher… my kids are in public schools. My wife and my kids are sitting ducks,” declared Harvey. “The bad guys know that they can go into my wife’s school, or my kids’ school, without any fear of retaliation.”
Linda Nieber, a citizen who testified in support of the measure, said earlier in the day she spent 23 minutes in a Denver Public School without anyone noticing that she was there.
“What could I have done to that school?” she asked lawmakers. “In the lunchroom, there are 100 kids eating at one time. I could have taken them all out. I knew how long it would have taken them to get a cop, I would have had my clip changed before a cop could have gotten me, or anybody could have tackled me with a ballpoint pen.”
Earlier in the hearing, Sen. Kevin Lundberg, R-Berthoud, asked, “What do you want [teachers] to do, run and hide, or pull a ballpoint pen on them? Honestly, is this really the logic that we’re to apply?”
Bethany Christiansen, a Colorado teacher from Greeley, agreed that she should have the right to protect herself and her children.
“I would take a bullet for my students any day,” she declared. “I will not let anything happen to my kids. And if I were allowed to carry in my school, if I could even save one life, I would.”
But Sen. Jessie Ulibarri, D-Commerce City, fought the proposal throughout the entire committee hearing. At times he found himself in a tussle with Harvey and Renfroe.
“I’m the father of two… and I just want to make sure that my kids aren’t caught in crosshairs, literally and figuratively,” Ulibarri addressed the two sponsors.
The Senate Judiciary Committee also defeated a second bill addressing gun-free zones on Wednesday by a party-line vote of 3-2. Senate Bill 62, sponsored by Sen. Kent Lambert, R-Colorado Springs, would have caused a private business with 50 or more employees to be liable for damages in a civil lawsuit if the business is open to the public but it prohibits the carrying of firearms. Businesses that ban guns would have been required to provide an armed security guard.
Lambert pointed out that the movie theater where the Aurora shooting took place was a gun-free zone.
“There were seven movie theaters showing the premiere of the ‘Batman’ movie within a 20-minute drive of the killer’s apartment,” explained Lambert. “Only one banned guns, posting signs warning permit holders that their guns weren’t allowed. Yet the killer didn’t go to the theater that was closest to his home… he went to the single one where he didn’t believe others would be able to protect themselves.”
Victims of the tragedy have filed lawsuits against Cinemark USA, the owner of the Century 16 theater, suggesting that the company be held responsible for poor security.
But Democrats rejected the idea that increased access to guns at businesses would deter or stop violent events. They were emboldened by testimony that the proposal would hurt business. A spokesperson for Kroenke Sports, the owner of the Pepsi Center, told lawmakers that the measure would cost the company up to 25 events a year. The bill was amended to exempt large venues.
But the measure still couldn’t be saved. Police chiefs also testified against the proposal, which helped solidify the legislation’s defeat.
“They believe it creates a legal framework that will encourage the proliferation of guns on private property,” testified Ann Marie Jensen, representing the Colorado Association of Chiefs of Police.
The County Sheriffs of Colorado, however, believe the Second Amendment is “not a guideline, but rather a right.”
“We do not believe that these tragedies should be used as the backdrop to advance gun control legislation,” the sheriffs representing Colorado’s 62 counties wrote this week in a position paper.
“The County Sheriffs of Colorado welcome open, honest, and deliberative dialogue on all public safety issues,” the sheriffs continued. “At the same time, we urge our state elected officials not to make decisions during this grieving period because it would likely lead to policies that are unenforceable and possibly unconstitutional, while punishing law abiding citizens and doing nothing to reduce violent crime.”
The final say on any gun control bills may come down to Gov. John Hickenlooper, a Democrat. Hickenlooper has signaled his support for measured gun control, including universal background checks and expanding mental health efforts. But he has been less forthcoming with his opinion on banning assault weapons and high-capacity magazines.
On Feb. 7 Hickenlooper will meet with David A. Keene, the president of the National Rifle Association, after Keene requested the meeting. Hickenlooper’s spokesman, Eric Brown, would not offer any other details of the scheduled get together.
Meanwhile, lobbyists are lining up from both sides of the debate to try to persuade the governor and lawmakers. The NRA, according to the Secretary of State’s office, hired high-profile local lobbyist Chris Howes on Jan. 24. And well-known lobbyist Will Coyne has been hired to represent Mayors Against Illegal Guns on the other side of the debate. Also, John Karakoulakis has been hired to lobby for Erie-based Magpul Industries Corp., the makers of high-ammunition magazines. He is also lobbying for the Newtown, Conn.-based National Shooting Sports Foundation.
Lobbyists will also likely weigh in on several other bills facing Colorado lawmakers this year, including:
• House Bill 1043, sponsored by Rep. Mike Foote, D-Lafayette, which would modify the definition of a deadly weapon so that a firearm qualifies as a deadly weapon regardless of the manner in which it is used;
• House Bill 1085, sponsored by Rep. Perry Buck, R-Windsor — the wife of Weld County District Attorney Ken Buck — which would allow some felons to carry weapons in Colorado; and
• Senate Bill 140, sponsored by Sen. Vicki Marble, R-Fort Collins, which would prohibit state employees from enforcing some federal firearms laws that become effective.
State lawmakers are carefully watching what happens with federal legislation that would ban assault weapons and high-capacity ammunition magazines. DeGette and U.S. Rep. Ed Perlmutter, D-Golden, have been at the forefront of the issue.
DeGette has proposed the measure to ban high-capacity magazines. On Sunday, she said her measure is necessary to prevent violent massacres. DeGette believes the conversation changed after the Sandy Hook incident.
“There was something about those little babies at Newtown that changed the debate,” she said. “And when you look at the polling about gun safety and about talking about these assault wea-pons and these assault magazines… the debate has shifted, and I have never seen such a commitment to doing something.”
Tom Mauser, who lost his son, Daniel, in the 1999 Columbine massacre, also spoke on Sunday of the need for gun control. He was wearing his dead son’s sneakers, which he has worn to many gun control events since his son was murdered. Mauser recently spoke to victims in Connecticut.
“I’m sorry to have you as members to this terrible club,” Mauser recalled telling parents of the Sandy Hook victims. “The club to which no parent would want to belong. The club of people who lost their children to gun violence… We really owe it to those parents to have that conversation… we owe it to all parents to have this conversation.”
Perlmutter is co-sponsoring the legislation that would ban assault weapons. He is working with U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., to coordinate the measure in both chambers of Congress. On Thursday, he held a teleconference town hall meeting with thousands of constituents just hours after announcing the bill.
“On one side of the district is Columbine and on the other side of the district is Aurora,” said Perlmutter about Colorado’s CD 7. “I was going to too many funerals last July and visited with families, first responders, law enforcement officers and medical staff. It was a very horrible, gruesome situation, and murders that were done with an assault rifle and some other weapons with high-capacity magazines.”
Both DeGette and Perlmutter have been very supportive of President Barack Obama’s call to reinstate the ban on assault weapons, limiting ammunition magazines and requiring universal background checks. The president has also announced executive orders aimed at keeping guns out of the hands of people who are suffering from a mental illness.
The first congressional hearing on gun violence since the Dec. 14 massacre in Connecticut kicked off on Wednesday.
Aurora Police Chief Dan Oates on Monday joined Obama, Vice President Joe Biden, members of Obama’s cabinet and 12 other police chiefs for a discussion on gun control. His comments were not made public. Obama, however, publicly thanked the law enforcement officials for their input.
“No group is more important for us to listen to than our law enforcement officials,” said Obama. “They are where the rubber hits the road.”