Fired up about new gun control legislation

Governor’s office working with legislators, gun control activists
The Colorado Statesman

A group of gun control activists have been working with the governor’s office and lawmakers on a package of bills for the upcoming legislative session. The measures take aim at curbing firearm possession by the mentally ill, statewide bans on assault weapons and high-capacity ammunition clips purchased online, and prohibiting handguns on college campuses.

The coalition — which includes Colorado Ceasefire, Mayors Against Illegal Guns and Sane Alternatives to the Firearms Epidemic (SAFE Colorado) — is currently narrowing down a list of about 20 proposals. Only four of the recommendations on the wish list have gained traction, and final drafts are still being crafted.

Reps. Rhonda Fields, D-Aurora, and Beth McCann, D-Denver, have taken the lead on the proposed legislation. Fields said she is working on finding the right balance, especially concerning a ban on assault weapons. She would like to define certain assault weapons to target specific models. As a result, she has pulled her draft back to take a more measured approach.

“It was on the table, but it’s been removed right now. We’re finding it difficult as it relates to defining what an assault weapon is,” explained Fields. “When you look at how it’s defined, so many people have assault weapons, so we are trying to narrow down the scope and maybe look at one specific type of ban, not banning all assault weapons.”

Fields — who lost her son to gun violence in Aurora in 2005 — says she is moving forward with her proposal to ban the online sale of high-capacity ammunition clips, and is working on a final draft.

She will also work with McCann on the mental health issue. McCann was traveling in Australia and New Zealand and was unavailable to comment extensively on the bills, but she did confirm her participation in the process.

Perhaps the greatest momentum for legislation could come from Gov. John Hickenlooper’s office, which has been working with Fields, McCann and the gun control coalition, specifically on the mental health component. The governor’s office confirmed that discussions have been taking place, but would not comment beyond that.

Fields — whose district includes the part of Aurora where an accused gunman opened fire at a movie theater on July 20 — said that she has been talking to the governor about the issue: “He would be interested in something like that if we can come up with the right policy,” she said of boosting the state’s mental health reporting laws. “We have to have all the professional providers on board with what might change.”

Lawmakers could strengthen existing law, or create new laws addressing handguns and the mentally ill. Some proposals include instituting universal background checks, ensuring all adjudicated mentally ill names appear on the National Instant Criminal Background Check System, empowering mental health therapists to put holds on gun purchases and possession, requiring the confiscation of guns from domestic violence offenders, instituting a waiting period on background checks, releasing mental health records for background checks, and prohibiting the purchase and possession of weapons by violent misdemeanants.

“I’m definitely going to work with [Hickenlooper] once I get it defined and get all the stakeholders,” added Fields. “I’m going to want him to take a look at it… to see if this is something that they can live with.”

Gun control advocates criticized Hickenlooper, a Democrat, over the summer following the horrific mass shooting at the Century 16 movie theater in Aurora. The senseless incident left 12 dead and 58 injured. Hickenlooper said on CNN following the massacre that, “This person, if there were no assault weapons available, if there were no other this or that, this guy’s going to find something, right? He’s going to know how to create a bomb.”

Control activists pounced on the governor, suggesting that his comment indicated a resistance to gun control. Their concerns intensified as information came out about the suspect, James Holmes, who apparently met with a psychiatrist the month before the shooting. The information led to questions about strengthening the state’s mental health reporting laws

Eileen McCarron, spokeswoman for Colorado Ceasefire, said she and other stakeholders are encouraged by the governor’s participation. She applauded him for reaching out to her group, which also includes high-profile gun control activist Tom Mauser, who lost his son in the 1999 Columbine High School massacre.

“It was like he was reading out of the NRA manual when he comes out and says these things,” McCarron said of Hickenlooper. “But then he moved to saying stuff about the mentally ill, and we felt like at least he’s making some moves… I think he’s had an earful from many people.”

A separate bill by Rep. Claire Levy, D-Boulder, would address the issue of guns on campus. Levy said that she is working with the same group of stakeholders on the bill, but that the measure probably won’t be part of the larger package of legislation.

Her proposal simply seeks to give university systems in Colorado the authority to ban guns on campus. The measure comes after the Colorado Supreme Court in March ruled that the University of Colorado Board of Regents overstepped its authority in blocking students from carrying licensed concealed weapons.

“That was a statutory interpretation, and it was not a Second Amendment decision,” explained Levy. “It was an interpretation of a statute, and the question was whether CU, specifically, was preempted under the language that refers to local governments… I’ll just change the law.”

Diminished gun lobby power?

Levy — as is the case with other gun control advocates — is not overly concerned about resistance from the gun lobby. Pro-gun groups in Colorado include the National Rifle Association, Rocky Mountain Gun Owners (also known nationally as the National Association for Gun Rights), and the Firearms Coalition of Colorado.

Levy believes the gun lobby has lost some of its power — not only in Colorado, but also across the nation — and she therefore believes gun control advocates have their best shot in years to pass reform. Activists are also benefited by a legislature that will be in Democratic control come Jan. 9.

“The NRA, pardon the pun, goes ballistic over everything,” quipped Levy. “I know going into a bill like this that I will have a lot of opposition; I know there will be attempts to obfuscate the issue and make it a Second Amendment issue, which it is not; I know that there will be all kinds of arguments about safety and the right to self defense, I expect that. But I think reasonable people would agree that we shouldn’t have guns in our classrooms.”

Colorado Ceasefire points out that the NRA spent nearly $12 million this year backing candidates in federal races, but that only 0.81 percent of that money went to winning candidates. Colorado Ceasefire, on the other hand, endorsed 48 candidates, and 69 percent of them were victorious. The organization also donated money to 21 candidates, and 20 of them, or about 95 percent, came out winners.

“I’m more hopeful than any time since I’ve lived in Colorado, and that’s since 1999, that we can get something done,” exclaimed McCarron. “The horror of what happened in Aurora, it’s just inexcusable that we have some of this weaponry in civilian hands.”

Gun control advocates have also called in reinforcements to push their effort over the top. John Head, a Denver attorney who helped lead the successful 2000 ballot initiative drive to require background checks at gun shows, has reassembled SAFE Colorado at the request of stakeholders. He worked with Mauser and Democratic consultant Arnie Grossman on the campaign at the time. Head says he’s back to continue the fight.

“When my phone starts ringing, when I answer it, I need to think there’s something there that needs to be addressed. The more you talk to people, the more you hear. And the number of people involved is much more than it was 12 years ago,” said Head, a moderate Republican who attempted to bridge partisan divides through SAFE Colorado.

“I believe that the awareness of the problem and concern about it is much more than what we had 12 years ago,” he continued, referring to Columbine. “That was a very traumatic event for a lot of people, it woke people up, but now we’ve got average people much more concerned about the threat to safety.”

The gun lobby, however, does not believe that it is losing steam. Andrew Arulanandam, a spokesman for the NRA, said after every election cycle, gun control sympathizers try to paint the NRA and other gun lobbies as being insignificant.

“They basically try the same thing every election cycle,” he said, adding that the study Colorado Ceasefire cited is a “rudimentary bang for your buck” report. “The reality is that at the federal level, our success rate was 80 percent, and that’s in terms of looking at the ratio of endorsed candidates to victory.”

“There’s a variety of people who enjoy writing the obituary for the National Rifle Association, only to find out that they’re woefully wrong,” declared Arulanandam.

“The American people are on the side of the NRA because they understand that our approach is common sense,” he added.

Dudley Brown, executive director of Rocky Mountain Gun Owners and the National Association for Gun Rights — both conservative organizations — warned against underestimating the power and tenacity of the gun lobby in Colorado.

“I encourage them to go for the gusto, because the truth is this, if they want to lose the majority that they just gained, I strongly suggest that they charge full ahead into bans on firearms and major gun control,” declared Brown. “That’s a perfect way for them to lose the majority immediately.”

Peter@coloradostatesman.com