Republicans might as well have been firing blanks at Democrats this week as the first major gun control debate of the year unfolded without hitting the target.
The centerpiece hearing involved a bill that sought to repeal last year’s law that mandated universal background checks in the state. The bill died Monday on a 3-2 party-line vote in the Senate State, Veterans and Military Affairs committee.
The law passed by Democrats last year aims to close a loophole that allowed private sales and transfers without a background review.
It was part of a package of gun control measures that set off a firestorm of activism. In Pueblo and Colorado Springs, gun rights groups forged ahead with recall efforts, successfully ousting from office Senate President John Morse of Colorado Springs and Sen. Angela Giron of Pueblo.
A third Senate Democrat, Evie Hudak of Westminster, resigned from office rather than face a likely recall over her support for gun control.
Down in Pueblo, Republican George Rivera replaced Giron after constituents complained that Giron had not been listening to them on the gun control issue. Though Senate District 3 is a Democratic-leaning district, the community is resistant to expanded control.
Rivera said he heard the cries of his district and therefore introduced Senate Bill 94, which would have repealed the universal background check law. It was one of his first priorities this year as a new state lawmaker.
“My constituents in Pueblo sent me here to give a message: They don’t like the gun laws that were passed last year,” Rivera said on Monday during introductory remarks.
“I’m here today on their behalf to ask the members of this committee to vote ‘yes’ and allow this bill to proceed,” Rivera continued.
The repeal effort came despite polling that indicates that 86 percent of Coloradans support universal background checks.
But Rivera pointed to issues with the law, such as complications with lending firearms to friends and family, and issues for rural Coloradans finding federal firearms licensed gun dealers in their area willing to conduct what could be a costly background check.
The law instituted a fee along with the background checks, estimated at $10. But some dealers have said the actual cost is as high as $50, which has become a loss for them.
“The new laws are the ones that I’m concerned about; put into place for a little less than a year now we can already see that they’re having problems, and they seem to be somewhat unworkable,” Rivera said during the committee meeting.
“They place an unreasonable burden on Coloradans, criminalizing acts like lending a hunting rifle to a friend,” he continued.
Democrats quickly pounced on Rivera, pointing to misconceptions in the legislation. Sen. Irene Aguilar, D-Denver, felt it necessary to grill Rivera on the facts of his testimony.
She pointed out that there are exceptions in the law for transfers, including antiques and gifts between family members.
She highlighted that since the law took effect in July, approximately 6,400 private background checks were conducted, and of those, 104 individuals were denied because they had histories of felony convictions.
“Should we have given those people access to guns?” Aguilar asked Rivera.
Rivera, a former police officer, pointed out that those denials were on initial review, but that in many cases, an appeal reveals errors that result in approval.
Critics of the law also highlight the fact that many of the private-seller transactions include background checks conducted at gun shows that already were required to conduct such background checks.
Still, Aguilar said she would rather be proactive: “There’s no guarantee that if we had given those 104 people a weapon, that they would not have killed someone, and I would always rather err on the side of sparing someone’s life,” she said.
Rivera also raised the argument that a criminal is going to find a way to possess a firearm regardless of the law, so it is ineffective to have increased gun control.
“There’s no guarantee that it actually never took place afterwards, because having been in law enforcement, I know that people who are intent on getting around the law find a way to,” explained Rivera.
Aguilar became increasingly more aggressive in her questioning of Rivera as the conversation continued, at one point suggesting that he was ignoring facts and statistics.
“I guess I don’t think you’re really hearing me,” Aguilar scolded Rivera. “What I’m saying is that since this law has passed, we have done background checks on 6,400 people and 104 people were denied access to a weapon because of a history of a felony or a restraining order, and what I’m asking you is would you have given those people guns? Because that’s what repealing this law would lead to.”
To which Rivera responded, “That law did not absolutely guarantee that those people did not get the gun when it was all said and done.”
Sen. Ted Harvey, R-Highlands Ranch, an ardent supporter of the Second Amendment and one of the most vocal critics of the gun control package last year, came to Rivera’s defense, suggesting that Democrats were turning the hearing into an exercise in political theatre.
“I don’t think Sen. Aguilar was asking a question, I think Sen. Aguilar was badgering the sponsor of this bill,” said Harvey. “He answered the question five times…”
Harvey pointed out that in 2012 with standard background checks, 3,814 people appealed, and of those appeals, 2,183 people — or about 57 percent — had their denials successfully overturned.
“What you are saying is you want to burden the citizens of the state of Colorado to become law breakers when they lend their neighbors a gun because they didn’t do a background check when their neighbors wanted to go hunting,” Harvey addressed Aguilar directly.
Republicans had the support of gun dealers and gun rights groups who testified on the burden the law has placed on them and their members. But the volume of people testifying this year paled in comparison to last year when hundreds showed up, spilling into the hallways that line the Gold Dome.
Legislative leaders scheduled the hearing Monday in the Old Supreme Court Chambers, the largest hearing room in the Capitol. Citizens filled the room, but there was little overflow. For those who couldn’t make it into the room, staffers pumped the audio through computer speakers outside the hearing. The conversation lasted more than six hours.
Matt Solomon, owner of Eagle-based Alpine Arms, said the new law is impacting his profits. As a result, he said many gun dealers are simply refusing to conduct private background checks, which leaves many Coloradans searching for a licensed dealer.
“After weighing the risks and costs associated with the program and noting that the program would cause our businesses a financial loss, we’ve decided… we cannot support and will not participate in the state’s effort to create and have small businesses like ours maintain a decentralized registry of firearms while limiting the fees we’re allowed to charge,” testified Solomon.
“In the end, it’s small businesses and constituents of you who pay the ultimate price…” he added.
National Rifle Association lobbyist Dan Carey also testified, suggesting that passage of the law has had no impact on reducing crime in Colorado.
“Passage of this private transfer background check was proven to have no proven ability to curb violent crimes, and really just burdens citizens,” said Carey.
But Democrats appeared more convinced by testimony from victims of gun violence, including one woman who was paralyzed at 16 years old in 2010 after being shot while standing outside Aurora Central High School.
“If this bill had been passed three years ago and the law had been in place, it’s likely that I wouldn’t be in this situation today,” Karina Vargas testified from her wheelchair, referring to the universal background check law.
“It only makes sense to keep background check loopholes closed, then perhaps we can prevent more tragedies like the one I experienced,” she continued.
Theresa Hoover, whose 18-year-old son AJ Boik was among the 12 people killed during the 2012 Aurora movie theater massacre, said lawmakers should take whatever steps they can to keep guns out of the hands of dangerous criminals. She rejected arguments that criminals will find guns, despite what the law says.
“Think about seat belt laws, it’s very simply, we have seat belt laws to keep people from getting injured in case they get in a vehicle accident…” explained Hoover. “The background checks are enforced in an effort to prevent unsafe, dangerous people from purchasing and causing injury or death… Just like the seat belt law, it is common sense.”
Other battles looming
The repeal of the universal background check law isn’t the only Republican effort the legislature will face this year to scale back the laws from last year. Two attempts have been introduced to repeal a law that banned high-capacity ammunition magazines of more than 15 rounds.
House Bill 1151, sponsored by Reps. Chris Holbert, R-Parker, and Lori Saine, R-Dacono, and Senate Bill 100, sponsored by Sens. Randy Baumgardner, R-Hot Sulphur Springs, and Bernie Herpin, R-Colorado Springs, are awaiting hearings.
HB 1151 is scheduled for Monday at 1:30 p.m. in the Old Supreme Court Chambers; and SB 100 is scheduled for Wednesday at 1:30 p.m. in the same room.
Republicans are pushing other gun rights bills as well, including House Bill 1097, sponsored by Rep. Clarice Navarro-Ratzlaff of Pueblo, which would create a tax exemption for firearms, ammunition and accessories. That bill had not been scheduled as of Thursday.
Another effort, House Bill 1157, sponsored by Rep. Stephen Humphrey of Severance, would expand concealed carry to public schools. A similar measure died last year. It is expected to receive passionate debate following the recent Arapahoe High School shooting that took the life of a 17-year-old girl. That hearing is scheduled for Tuesday at 1:30 p.m. in House Committee Room 0112.
House Bill 1063, sponsored by Rep. Justin Everett of Littleton, would expand the so-called “Make My Day” law to businesses. The current law protects homeowners from prosecution when using self-defense during a home invasion. HB 1063 would also include businesses. That measure had not been scheduled as of Thursday.
Bipartisan House Bill 1230, sponsored by Rep. Perry Buck, R-Windsor, and Sen. Pat Steadman, D-Denver, would expand gun rights to some felons, such as if that individual is convicted of a non-violent felony. A similar measure died last year. The hearing for HB 1230 has been scheduled for Feb. 20 at 1:30 p.m. in House Committee Room 0112.
Senate Bill 38, sponsored by Sen. Scott Renfroe, R-Greeley, would prohibit the governor from limiting access to firearms during a declared state emergency. Similar efforts have failed in the past. That hearing is scheduled for Monday at 1:30 p.m. in Senate Committee Room 353.
Senate Bill 90, sponsored by Baumgardner, would exempt step-relatives from having to conduct background checks when transferring a firearm. That hearing is scheduled for Friday at 1:30 p.m. in Senate Committee Room 353.
Meanwhile, another bill that sought to eliminate permits for concealed handgun carry died Tuesday on a Democratic party-line vote. Rep. Jared Wright, R-Fruita, and Holbert sponsored House Bill 1041. The effort has become a perennial bill, which is regularly killed by the legislature.