It was a tough week for Republicans and gun rights activists as they watched several of their efforts to roll back gun control backfire. A gaffe by one Senate Republican made national headlines, while interest waned on attending legislative hearings seeking to expand gun rights.
The legislature this week heard two separate measures seeking to repeal a law backed by Democrats last year that banned high-capacity ammunition magazines, while also debating another measure that sought to give school districts the right to arm teachers.
All of the measures died in committee on Democratic party-line votes.
Perhaps the most controversial event of the week came when Sen. Bernie Herpin, R-Colorado Springs, made a comment about the 2012 Aurora movie theater massacre that many have taken as insensitive, at best.
Herpin opined that it was a good thing that the shooter — who claimed 12 lives and injured 58 more — had a 100-round magazine because it jammed during the shooting spree, perhaps saving additional lives. Herpin pointed out that the shooter could have used multiple 15-round magazines, which are more reliable and could have resulted in additional lives lost.
The law passed by Democrats last year banned high-capacity ammunition magazines of more than 15 rounds.
Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America
“Perhaps James Holmes would not have been able to purchase a 100-round magazine,” Herpin said Wednesday during remarks on his bill. “As it turned out that was maybe a good thing that he had a 100-round magazine because it jammed. If he had instead had four, five, six, 15-round magazines, there’s no telling how much damage he could have done until a good guy with a gun showed up.”
Democrats immediately seized the opportunity, taking to Twitter to assail Herpin for the poorly worded comment. They issued a statement questioning how anyone could be so insensitive.
“The shooting of 70 people cannot, in any way, be construed as ‘maybe a good thing,’ even if the statement was a hypothesis that the Aurora shooting could have been worse if the gunman had used multiple 15-round magazines,” explained Senate Democrats’ spokesman Doug Schepman.
“My community still hasn’t fully recovered from this,” added Senate President Morgan Carroll of Aurora, whose district includes the movie theater in which the nightmare unfolded. “The wounds on this go very deep. I think there’s been a lot of this debate that’s been very difficult for Aurora.”
Democrats were emboldened by comments from Tom Sullivan, the father of Aurora theater shooting victim Alex Sullivan.
“I’ve had a lot of thoughts since July 20, 2012, and I can tell you that I never have once thought that it was better that that man walked into that theater with a 100-round drum, and opened fire on the over 200 people that were in that theater,” Sullivan addressed lawmakers. “From every indication that I have, from the pictures, the reports that I’ve received from the DA, it says that 76 bullets came out of that magazine.”
The gaffe is particularly controversial coming from Herpin, who replaced Senate President John Morse of Colorado Springs this year after Morse was recalled over his support of the gun control measures passed last year.
In addition to banning high-capacity magazines, Democrats also required universal background checks to close a loophole in private gun transfers. Democrats killed a measure this year seeking to repeal that law.
Acknowledging the groundswell of anger, Herpin apologized for the comment, though he believes much of it was taken out of context. Headlines simply read, “’Maybe a good thing’ Aurora suspect had high-capacity mag.” In reality, Herpin was pointing to the fact that 100-round magazines are unreliable and jam, as was the case in Aurora.
“There’s nothing I can say to relieve their pain; I certainly didn’t intend to add to their pain,” Herpin told reporters the day after the blowup.
Democrats themselves haven’t been immune to such gaffes over the course of the gun control debate.
During the legislative session last year, then-Sen. Evie Hudak of Westminster told a rape victim during her testimony in support of gun rights, “Statistics are not on your side even if you had a gun… Chances are that if you would have had a gun, then he would have been able to get that from you and possibly use it against you.”
Hudak later resigned from office rather than face a likely recall election.
Morse was also the subject of controversy when last year he quoted Robert F. Kennedy in support of gun control, saying, “Violence breeds violence, repression breeds retaliation, and only a cleansing of our whole society can remove this sickness from our souls.”
Critics said Morse was indicating that gun owners cause the “sickness,” and he was later recalled from office.
Rep. Joe Salazar, D-Thornton, also apologized last year after suggesting that guns can be a poor choice for self-defense because mistakes can be made and innocent people can be shot. He was attacked after directing that towards women who might accidentally shoot an innocent person for falsely fearing that they might be raped.
“It’s why we have call boxes, it’s why we have safe zones, that’s why we have the whistles. Because you just don’t know if you feel like you’re going to be raped, or if you feel like someone’s been following you around, of if you feel like you’re in trouble when you may actually not be, that you pop out that gun and you… pop a round at somebody,” Salazar said at the time.
Committees cause déjà vu
Aside from the headlines generated by Herpin, committee hearings this week brought little new to the debate. Perhaps the biggest difference was turnout.
While hundreds of gun rights supporters had showed up last year to oppose the gun control measures, only dozens showed up this week to testify in support of rolling back the measures from last year and expanding rights this year.
Gun activists have repeatedly said that they are focused on the November elections, considering they won’t make much progress in the Democratic-controlled legislature.
But for those who showed up, it was an opportunity to criticize Democrats for the perception of infringing on their Second Amendment right. It also offered an opportunity for sheriffs to criticize the magazine ban as unenforceable. Several sheriffs have filed a lawsuit seeking to overturn the law.
“The fact that a law was written that cannot be enforced does not necessarily infer how we have been on enforcing it,” Larimer County Sheriff Justin Smith explained on Monday during testimony on House Bill 1151, the other attempt at repealing the magazine ban.
“The reality is that no one in the state has found it enforceable,” he continued.
Rep. Lori Saine, R-Dacono, who sponsored HB 1151 along with Rep. Chris Holbert, R-Parker, pointed out that Magpul Industries, makers of high-capacity ammunition magazines, has decided to leave Colorado. The company has said that the move will cost Colorado about $80 million in lost revenue and about 600 jobs.
“I understand folks may not like Magpul or what it stands for or its products, but do consider the folks who are losing their jobs as a result of last year’s bill,” implored Saine.
But Rep. Mike Foote, D-Lafayette, countered by pointing out that Magpul is currently hiring for positions at its location in Erie, including looking for a graphics designer and an engineer. He also suggested that the only reason Magpul is moving is because it received subsidies from Wyoming to transfer locations across the border.
“Magpul is currently hiring at its Erie location, that was posted about two weeks ago…” said Foote. “And Magpul accepted about $17 million in government subsidies in order to move there.”
When the Senate version of the repeal measure made it to committee on Wednesday, Sen. Irene Aguilar, a physician, said she would rather lean towards being proactive than waiting for something tragic to happen.
“I don’t think it’s irrelevant to speculate about what if because I think that prevention is something on which we base a lot of our decisions in life,” explained Aguilar.
But Sen. Ted Harvey, R-Highlands Ranch, pointed out that there are still many ways for people to purchase high-capacity magazines, including shopping online.
“That legislation would not have prohibited him from buying a 100-round magazine today…” suggested Harvey. “If you are intent on going out in a blaze of glory and killing as many people because you are a sick and disturbed individual, you are going to break the law and you are going to buy it and have it shipped to you in Colorado.”
Similar arguments on prevention were made during a hearing on House Bill 1157, sponsored by Rep. Stephen Humphrey, R-Severance. The legislation would have empowered local school boards to create policies allowing staff, including teachers, to carry a concealed weapon on public school grounds.
The issue strikes an emotional note following the recent Arapahoe High School shooting in which a student took the life of a 17-year-old female peer.
More people showed up to testify on HB 1157 than the other gun bills this week. But the testimony was tilted towards opponents of the measure, greatly surpassing the number of witnesses who attended to support extending guns to public schools.
Several students from schools across the state showed up to testify against the bill, saying they do not want firearms where they learn. Mothers also took action, staging a “stroller jam” in which they showed up in force at the Capitol to urge lawmakers not to expand gun rights to schools. Families of mass shooting victims also offered their testimony.
“More guns in schools won’t make our country’s children safer, but stronger gun laws that keep guns out of the hands of criminals will,” explained Jennifer Hope, Colorado leader of Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America. “Our schools are where we want to reduce violence. Adding guns won’t accomplish that.”
School safety officials who testified against the bill, including Michael Eaton, chief of safety and security for Denver Public Schools, bolstered opponents. Eaton pointed out that state law already allows for school districts to hire armed officers.
“We have officers that are trained in responding to these types of incidents by local law enforcement and security, and now we’re adding to that that we now have individuals who don’t have that training…” explained Eaton.
Salazar agreed, adding, “School districts already permit school resource officers to carry concealed weapons onto school grounds… This bill would essentially allow school districts to compound upon teachers duties… these kind of duties in order to respond to these highly rapidly developing situations.”
But not all educators agree, especially those in rural parts of the state where it could take much longer for law enforcement to respond to a school shooting. The Colorado Association of School Boards supported the measure because they believe it would have offered flexibility to districts.
“When seconds count, the police are minutes away,” testified Jane Urschel, deputy executive director of CASB. “Rural school districts live with this reality…”
Humphrey said he introduced the measure simply to give school districts more options given ongoing school violence.
“We have seen what happens the way things are now,” Humphrey said during his opening remarks. “The status quo is unacceptable. We need to give our schools every option for protecting our children.”
Less controversial gun bills
The legislature this week also heard a handful of other gun bills that have been far less controversial.
Senate Bill 38, sponsored by Sen. Scott Renfroe, R-Greeley, would have prohibited the governor from limiting firearms during a declared state emergency. The bill died Monday on a party-line vote in the Senate State, Veterans and Military Affairs Committee.
Also, Senate Bill 90, sponsored by Sen. Randy Baumgardner, R-Hot Sulphur Springs, would have expanded background check exemptions for family members to include step relatives. That measure died Friday in the Senate State, Veterans and Military Affairs Committee on a party-line vote after a short hearing.