A visibly shaken Gov. John Hickenlooper on Wednesday morning signed three controversial pieces of gun control legislation just hours after learning that his Department of Corrections chief, Tom Clements, was gunned down at his home in Monument Tuesday night.
Taking to the microphone at a media availability, Hickenlooper called the killing a coincidence, but said the timing highlights the significance of the bills.
“An incident like this in some ways — whether it’s an act of retaliation, or something… — it is also an act of intimidation,” Hickenlooper spoke somberly with a quiet tone. “And my gut feeling… is to go forward with our work. It’s the kind of thing Tom would have understood.”
Clements’ death cast a shadow over an already emotionally charged day at the legislature, forcing increased security. Still, Hickenlooper continued with his work, signing bills to:
• Ban high-capacity ammunition magazines capable of holding more than 15 rounds (House Bill 1224);
• Implement a universal background check, closing a loophole for private sales and transfers of firearms (House Bill 1229); and
• Require a fee for background checks related to firearms purchases (House Bill 1228).
Hickenlooper took a seat at a desk in his office before signing the three bills, a sad look on his face as cameras flashed to capture the monumental moment. After pausing for a few seconds, he began signing the first bill to require a fee for background checks.
After signing each bill, lawmakers and guests applauded the governor. Rep. Rhonda Fields, D-Aurora — who spearheaded much of the gun control charge after losing her son to gun violence in 2005 — said the measures are about protecting communities.
“While we cannot prevent every act of violence, we must do what we can to reduce the frequency and the impact of these horrible events,” she said after the bill signings.
Rep. Beth McCann, D-Denver, who sponsored the universal background check bill along with Fields, agreed that the signing ceremony sends a signal of protecting communities.
“We have taken important steps to improve the safety of the people of Colorado and our community…” she said. “Background checks are really the only systematic way to make sure that people who shouldn’t have guns are not able to get them.”
Senate President John Morse, D-Colorado Springs, who had run an unsuccessful bill attempting to create a liability for manufacturers and sellers of assault weapons, said that while the debate became political, the message has always been safety. He said the death of Clements is proof of that.
“It’s been an exhausting and emotionally draining session, and on the day we should be celebrating the signing of these three bills… I’m mourning the loss of yet one more person to this senseless violence that’s plaguing our entire country,” he remarked.
Victims of gun violence joined the governor and lawmakers at the signing ceremony, including families who were impacted by the July Aurora movie theater massacre that claimed the lives of 12 and injured 58 others, and victims of the December Sandy Hook Elementary School mass shooting in Newtown, Conn., in which 20 children and six adults were gunned down. Victims of the Columbine High School massacre also joined, in which 12 students and one teacher were murdered in 1999.
“You’ve given us a real gift today…” said Sandy Phillips, whose daughter, Jessica Ghawi, was killed in the Aurora movie theater. She told Hickenlooper that Wednesday marked eight months since the shooting. “Thank you so much, you’re leading the entire country.”
Jane Dougherty, whose sister, Mary Sherlach, was a psychologist killed in the Sandy Hook incident, was nearly crying as she approached the governor. Later, she told reporters, “It has to end. It has to start somewhere…
“And I’m so proud that it started here in Colorado, and it needed to start here in Colorado…” she continued. “We have to stop allowing the easy availability of weapons, and these bills will do that.”
Tom Mauser, who lost his son, Daniel Mauser, to the Columbine massacre, was once again wearing the sneakers of his dead son, which he has worn to many gun control advocacy events over the years.
“Have we made a public policy statement? Damn right we have,” he said following the bill signings.
Opposition continues fight
In the days leading up to the governor’s signing ceremony, Republicans and gun rights activists flooded Hickenlooper’s office with phone calls and e-mails pleading with him not to sign the bills.
Most of the concerns rest with the magazine ban. Some argue that the measure effectively bans all magazines because most have a removable base plate for extenders, which they believe is illegal under HB 1224.
Noting the controversy surrounding the bill, Hickenlooper also issued a signing statement, explaining what the measure does and does not do. The governor does not usually issue signing statements.
The libertarian Independence Institute is planning on filing a lawsuit that would overturn the law, according to president Jon Caldara. He said the organization would also go after the universal background check law. Caldara added that several individual sheriffs and law enforcement organizations are likely to join the suit.
“I think there’s enough to have a judge overturn this thing even before we get to the Second Amendment arguments,” opined Caldara, adding that the law is unclear and difficult to understand.
Weld County Sheriff John Cooke — who has threatened not to enforce the magazine ban — confirmed to The Colorado Statesman that he and at least a dozen other sheriffs from across the state are planning on joining the case.
The county sheriffs have expressed concerns with the magazine ban especially, suggesting that it will be difficult to enforce when it takes effect in July because it will be impossible for officers to keep track of how gun owners are meeting the requirements.
The County Sheriffs of Colorado opposed the measure, but Chris Olson, executive director, said his organization has not yet decided on whether to file a separate lawsuit seeking to block implementation of the law.
Citizens are also looking into gathering signatures for a voter initiative that would repeal the gun control laws. Save Our Shotguns was registered as an issue committee seeking to overturn HB 1224.
A popular theme raised by opponents has been that national interests, including Vice President Joe Biden — who called Colorado lawmakers encouraging them to support gun control — and New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who leads Mayors Against Illegal Guns, persuaded Democrats.
Hickenlooper denied the national pressure, stating, “This didn’t come from the White House, this had nothing to do with Mayor Bloomberg, or Vice President Biden… I don’t think [the vice president’s] call made any difference…”
Another concern raised has been over impacts to the business climate. Erie-based Magpul Industries Corp, the makers of high-capacity magazines, has threatened to close shop.
From its Facebook page on Wed-nesday, Magpul said, “Our transition to a new home will occur in a phased and orderly a manner to allow us to continue to serve our customers during the move, as well as to allow an orderly transition for affected employees.”
The company says the state would lose an estimated $85 million in yearly spending, and at least 200 jobs. Hickenlooper acknowledged the threat.
“In a time like this, you hate to lose any jobs…” he answered a question from a reporter. “That’s their decision, and I respect every company has to be able to do what they do.”
Much of the fight in the aftermath is likely to be seen as the election season comes into focus. Republicans and gun rights advocates have vowed to use the legislation to “destroy” Democrats.
Democrats regained a majority in the House after the November election, and maintained a majority in the Senate. Hickenlooper is also a Democrat.
But Dudley Brown, executive director of Rocky Mountain Gun Owners, said the political tide is about to shift. His group — the largest gun rights group in the state — was instrumental in ousting Republicans who did not align with his group’s values during primaries last year. He said RMGO would now set their crosshair on Democrats.
“Gov. Hickenlooper and the Democrats in the legislature just handed our organization a sledgehammer. We’re going to wade through their china shop in the 2014 elections,” declared Brown. “Our organization and gun owners around the state are going to destroy the Democratic caucus.”
Sen. Greg Brophy, R-Wray, agreed that the best approach for opponents would be to oust Democrats. If Republicans regain a majority, they could repeal gun control measures next year.
“The real solution here is at the ballot box in 2014. I think the Democrats will learn in 2014 what they learned in 1994, and hopefully it will be a lesson that they will take to heart,” Brophy said, pointing to an effort by Democrats under then-President Bill Clinton, a Democrat, to ban assault weapons on the national level. President George W. Bush, a Republican, succeeded Clinton.
Issue committees have been established to recall at least two Democrats who supported gun control, including efforts aimed at Rep. Mike McLachlan, D-Durango, and Morse. The committees are the San Juan Freedom
Defense Committee and the El Paso Freedom Defense Committee, respectively.
More work on the horizon
Democrats still have work ahead, as there are two key pieces of their gun control agenda to advance:
• Senate Bill 197, sponsored by Sen. Evie Hudak, D-Westminster, would create a legal mechanism to ensure that domestic violence offenders do not carry a firearm. The bill has passed the Senate and is awaiting a hearing in the House; and
• Senate Bill 195, sponsored by Sen. Lois Tochtrop, D-Thornton, would require in-person training for concealed carry permits. The measure has passed the Senate and is awaiting a hearing in the House.
Lawmakers in the second half of the legislative session may also be addressing bills aimed at mental health and gun violence, including enacting a new civil commitment law.
Another bill seeking to prohibit concealed carry on college campuses, House Bill 1226, was killed by its Senate sponsor, Sen. Rollie Heath, D-Boulder, after he realized he did not have the votes to pass the legislation.