Gun bills trigger explosive testimony

Five of seven controversial gun bills get initial approval in state Senate
The Colorado Statesman

The most emotionally explosive week yet at the state legislature concerning gun control ended with only five of seven bills in a Democratic legislative package receiving initial approval by the Senate late Friday night.

Senate President John Morse, D-Colorado Springs, stunned observers when he decided to kill his own measure, Senate Bill 196, which would have held manufacturers and sellers of assault weapons liable for violent incidents that take place with those weapons.

And Sen. Rollie Heath, D-Boulder, also surprised observers when it was reported Friday that he would ask to kill House Bill 1226, which would have prohibited concealed carry on college campuses. He co-sponsored the bill with Rep. Claire Levy, D-Boulder. Heath officially asked the Senate to kill the measure just after 10 p.m.

Mark Kelly, the husband of former U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords of Arizona, listens to Sen. Morgan Carroll, D-Aurora, sponsor of the bill for universal background checks for firearms purchases, during a committee hearing Monday at the Capitol. Kelly also testified in support of the bill.
Photo Courtesy of Colorado Senate Majority

Legislation that was given preliminary approval by the Senate after the more than 13-hour debate included:

• House Bill 1224, sponsored by Sen. Mary Hodge, D-Brighton, and Rep. Rhonda Fields, D-Aurora, which would ban high-capacity ammunition magazines of more than 15 rounds. Democratic Sens. Cheri Jahn of Wheat Ridge and Lois Tochtrop of Thornton stood with Republicans in an attempt to defeat HB 1224, but it was not the three votes Republicans needed to kill the measure;

• Senate Bill 197, sponsored by Sen. Evie Hudak, D-Westminster, and Rep. Beth McCann, D-Denver, and Fields, which would create a legal mechanism to ensure that domestic violence offenders do not carry a firearm;

• Senate Bill 195, sponsored by Sen. Lois Tochtrop, D-Thornton, and Rep. Jenise May, D-Aurora, which would require in-person training for concealed carry permits;

• House Bill 1229, sponsored by Sen. Morgan Carroll, D-Aurora, and Fields and McCann, which would require a universal background check, thereby closing a loophole that allows private sales and transfers without a check; and

• House Bill 1228, sponsored by Sen. Rollie Heath, D-Boulder, and Rep. Lois Court, D-Denver, which would require a fee for firearms background checks.

The Senate scheduled the measures for final reading on Monday. Assuming the bills pass, only HB 1228 is ready for the governor’s signature. Gov. John Hickenlooper, a Democrat, is expected to sign the bill into law.

Liability bill a liability?

Just the day before Morse decided to kill his bill, he told reporters that he was confident that the measure would be part of the Democrats’ package of gun control legislation.

Morse would not tell The Colorado Statesman specifically why he chose to kill his measure, though it was apparent by Friday morning that he did not have the votes necessary to pass it.

Instead, Morse offered this statement following the vote: “I’m proud of what we got done today. We passed a very comprehensive package of legislation reducing gun violence. We didn’t pass every bill, but that’s the way life is.”

In explaining his decision to colleagues on the Senate floor, Morse said, “Cleansing sickness from our souls doesn’t come easily, it’s gruesome. During the last three months, we’ve experienced hatred and vitriol that I haven’t seen since I was on the street as a police officer. It’s included wishing rape, torture and death on legislators and their families…

“This debate on reducing gun violence in this country needed to happen, and it finally is happening, and I’m proud to be a Coloradan and proud to represent these Colorado values,” he continued.

Republicans believe the measure would have been onerous regulation that puts businesses in an unfair position. To hold manufacturers and sellers of assault weapons liable for incidents that take place after those weapons leave their hands is illegal and immoral, they say.

The focus was on the legality of the bill. The measure would have held manufacturers and sellers of assault weapons liable for violent acts if they “negligently entrusted” the firearms with someone whom they “reasonably should have known might use the weapon” to cause harm.

David Kopel, a University of Denver law-school professor and research director for the libertarian Independence Institute, said the measure would have likely conflicted with federal law, which prohibits lawsuits against gun makers and dealers for crimes committed with their products.

“[This is] not a bill whose draftsmanship rises to the level of competence,” Kopel said during the Senate Judiciary Committee on Monday when the bill passed 3-2 on a party-line vote.

But Randy Barnhart, a Denver-based liability attorney, disagreed: “We hold people responsible for the conduct of others all the time,” he said.

Republicans called the measure a backdoor attempt at banning assault weapons in Colorado. No business would sell the weapons in the state if they feared a lawsuit, lamented critics. They also feared that the definition of an assault weapon was too vague, which could have outlawed several weapons, including popular break-open shotguns.

Concealed carry on campus and the ‘war on women’

Levy and Heath’s HB 1226 had also become entrenched in controversy, and Heath did not appear to have the votes necessary to move it forward.

“Campus violence is a comprehensive problem that needs comprehensive solutions, and I would like this bill to address more of the concerns raised in this debate,” Heath explained to colleagues from the Senate well. “I look forward to working with my Republican colleagues over the next year on solutions to campus violence, including sexual assault on college campuses and the alarming growth in suicides.”

Levy, who introduced the measure, said she doesn’t blame Heath: “I knew that there were problems with some senators’ votes,” said Levy. “If the sponsor does not feel he has the votes, then I don’t think it’s productive to have a debate on the bill, and there’s so much other business to do. I think it’s a wise thing to do to go ahead and postpone the bill.”

The measure had become tangled up in a messaging battle over a “war on women.” Republicans attempted to turn the table by saying Democrats are insensitive to women who want to protect themselves with a firearm, especially on college campuses.

Democrats used similar messaging during the presidential election last year when they said Republicans were waging a war on women by attempting to block reproductive health care rights.

The contention with HB 1226 started during House debate last month. Rep. Joe Salazar, D-Thornton, said: “You just don’t know if you feel like you’re going to be raped… you feel like you’re in trouble when you may actually not be…”

Hudak then found herself trapped in the embroilment when on Monday she made another alarming comment regarding rape and concealed-carry on campus.

Rape victim Amanda Collins, a 27-year-old Reno, Nev. woman who was attacked in 2007 at the Reno campus of the University of Nevada, testified before the Senate State, Veterans and Military Affairs Committee prior to HB 1226 being approved on a 3-2 party-line vote. Collins said she had a concealed-carry permit and would have had a firearm had the campus not been a gun-free zone.

Hudak responded, “I just want to say that, actually, 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.”

Collins was taken aback by Hudak’s assumption, rebutting, “Respectfully, senator, you weren’t there. Had I been carrying concealed, he wouldn’t have known I had my weapons… I know without a doubt in my mind at some point I would’ve been able to stop my attack by using my firearm.”

Hudak apologized for what she herself described as an “insensitive” comment. But the damage was done, and Republicans attacked her.

“The women who came here and shared their personal stories of rape and assault have just been victimized again by their own government,” Senate Minority Leader Bill Cadman, R-Colorado Springs, said following the committee vote.

“Sen. Hudak has become an embarrassment to Colorado and a distraction in the state Senate,” Colorado Republican Party Chairman Ryan Call said in a news release. “Her condescending attitude toward this young woman is not only reprehensible, it is indicative of the attitude of Colorado Democrats who think they know better.”

Domestic violence offenders

Messaging about women also occurred with SB 197, which would add a legal mechanism to prohibit domestic violence offenders from possessing a firearm.

Hudak said the measure is necessary to cut back on the number of women who become victims of domestic violence. In 2011 in Colorado, 13 people were killed by guns in domestic violence incidents by offenders who should not have had a gun under federal law.

“It’s not enough to block the sale of weapons to domestic violence offenders,” Hudak said during the two-and-a-half-hour debate.

Courts would be required to order anyone subject to a domestic violence protection order, or found guilty of domestic violence, to surrender their firearms within 24 hours. In some instances a judge could extend the deadline to 72 hours.

In an attempt to alleviate constitutional concerns — especially for offenders who may not have been found guilty of a crime — a provision of the bill would allow the weapons to be stored with local law enforcement, or a federally licensed firearms dealer. Individuals could also sell, or transfer the firearm to someone else through a federal firearms license dealer. If a protection order is lifted, the guns could be returned.

A receipt proving surrender of the weapon would need to be provided to a court within three days.

Sen. Linda Newell, D-Littleton, said during debate on Friday that the measure is not perfect, but it is a step in the right direction for cutting back on domestic violence.

“If it is all just working fine the way it is, will you please go back to your districts and tell your domestic violence victims and their families how fine it is that we have so many dead people, that we have so many injured people every year due to domestic violence?” she addressed her colleagues.

“Is this going to fix it in totality, no. It is a complex problem,” Newell continued. “But it is one part of the solution.”
Opponents argue that the bill has no teeth, and would do little to actually help victims.

Cadman told an emotional and personal story in stating his opposition to the measure. He sought to affirm his sympathies for domestic violence victims, while expressing his skepticism of the bill.

The story began as a third-person account of a family in Cadman’s neighborhood when he was growing up as a boy. The family had an abusive father with a large cache of guns in the house.

“He had a bad temper, he was abusive,” Cadman said of the father. “To say his three children, his two sons… and their daughter… were scared of him would be a gross understatement.”

As the story progressed, it appeared to become much more personal. Cadman seemed to be very closely connected to the family he was describing, especially as he detailed one of the sons, who had put the family car in reverse one day, drove it through a shed and smashed a refrigerator.

“He was punished by being spanked by a screwdriver… a screwdriver,” Cadman said with pain in his voice.
“One time he managed to push his wife out the front door and lock her out while she was naked,” continued Cadman.

Then Cadman pulled back the curtain and revealed that the family he was describing was his own childhood family.

“Do you know what it’s like to hear your 10-year-old brother beat by a screwdriver?” he asked. “I do… Maybe we should lay this over so that we can actually do something on domestic violence.”

But Democrats rejected a motion to lay the bill over, and it passed.

Businesses threaten to leave

Another popular theme being used by opponents is to point to businesses that have threatened to leave the state if gun control measures are signed into law. The issue comes into play with HB 1224, limiting ammunition magazines to 15 rounds.

Erie-based Magpul Industries Corp, the makers of high-capacity magazines, has threatened to close shop in Colorado if the state passes strict gun control, especially HB 1224.

Meanwhile, Michael Bane, executive producer and host for the Outdoor Channel, sent an e-mail to lawmakers threatening to move all production out of Colorado if the gun bills become law.

Smaller firearms-related businesses have sent similar letters of concern.

During the Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on Monday — where HB 1224 passed on a 3-2 party-line vote — Jessica Johnson, a Magpul employee, pleaded with lawmakers not to pass the bill.

“I love my job and I love coming to work every day…” testified Johnson, whose husband, daughter, sister and niece also work at Magpul. “Magpul has given my husband and I such an awesome opportunity to grow that we don’t think we could start over at a new company, nor would we want to.”

Sen. Greg Brophy, R-Wray, advanced that message during debate on Friday: “This bill goes to jobs and the economy,” he said. “The problem is it takes it in the wrong direction. This bill drives jobs out of the State of Colorado and has a negative impact on our economy.”

In an attempt to ease fears, Hodge offered an amendment to HB 1224 that would place a ban on any shotgun magazines that hold more than 28 inches of shotgun shells. Because shells vary in size, critics were concerned that the original bill would have outlawed most shotguns with magazines of more than eight shells. The amendment passed.

“This bill is an attempt to reduce the slaughter,” Hodge said of her legislation. “I’m trying to keep constituents safer.”

But Sen. Steve King, R-Grand Junction, a former police officer, said there is no such thing as true gun control: “In my world, good gun control is two to the body and one to the head,” he said.

Republicans fought back during the nearly five-hour debate, doing most of the talking. Democrats rarely took to the well to state their support. Instead, the GOP offered a series of failed amendments, including an effort to completely kill the bill by removing language that would have enacted it.

Tochtrop was the only Democrat to join Republicans in supporting the amendment. She later stood with Jahn and Republicans in opposing the bill itself.

“I’m concerned about business leaving…” she told The Statesman after the preliminary vote. Tochtrop did not actually take to the well to explain herself.

“We talk about jobs, jobs, jobs — but this is a jobs killer bill…” she continued.

Another amendment offered by Republicans would have offered an exemption for members of the military, allowing them to carry 30-round magazines. Hodge fought the proposal, suggesting, “Some of these military people come back with mental health issues.”

Sen. Kent Lambert, R-Colorado Springs, appeared insulted, calling Hodge’s comment a “stereotypical viewpoint.”

Background checks

Also dividing the legislature is an attempt at requiring a universal background check in Colorado, especially after the issue made national headlines this week.

Mark Kelly, the husband of former U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords — who was seriously injured in a shooting in Arizona in 2011 that took the lives of six people — testified before the Senate State, Veterans and Military Affairs Committee, where the bill passed on a 3-2 party-line vote.

At a news conference earlier in the day, Kelly pointed out that he and his wife are gun owners. But he said tougher background checks are necessary to keep guns out of the hands of dangerous individuals.

“In 15 seconds, [the gunman] emptied his magazine. It contained 33 bullets; there were 33 wounds,” he testified. “The killer in the Tucson shooting suffered from severe mental illness, but even after being deemed unqualified for service in the Army and expulsion from Pima Community College, he was never reported to mental health authorities. My wife’s shooter should not have passed a background check.”

Carroll made a similar argument during debate on Friday. It was in her district in July that a gunman killed 12 and injured 58 others at a movie theater in Aurora.

“I’m carrying this bill because gun violence has become an epidemic…” she said. “Enough is enough.”

But the County Sheriffs of Colorado disagree with Carroll and her supporters. During the committee hearing on Monday, Weld County Sheriff John Cooke testified against the measure. Standing behind him in solidarity was about 20 sheriffs.

“This law is unenforceable,” said Cooke. “This bill is a case of elected officials feeling the need to do something, anything, whether or not the law is enforceable …”

Brophy agreed on Friday. Speaking from the well, he said, “It is dangerous because it is unenforceable.”

Sen. Ted Harvey, R-Highlands Ranch, said the issue is about self defense: “We have it to defend ourselves against a tyrannical government…” he affirmed. “But we also have it to defend ourselves and our family from evil, and no government has the authority to take away someone’s inalienable right to defend themselves and their family.”

The bill was amended to allow military personnel to transfer a firearm to a family member or friend before deployment. There are also exceptions in the bill for gifting a gun to a family member, or if the gun is inherited. The measure also allows for a 72-hour loan period.

The Senate also gave preliminary approval to a fee for background checks. The fee is estimated to be between $10-$12.

A backlog in the state’s firearms background check system has empowered Democrats to push for the bill. They argue that a fee could help ease the backlog and also direct money to services such as mental health, which could reduce crime.

“This is a common sense solution considering teachers, doctors and other professionals must pay for the same background checks as a condition of their occupational licensing,” opined co-sponsor Heath.

But Republicans believe a fee would fly in the face of constitutional rights: “We have not had a fee for over a decade, and the reason why is because it is a right to be able to bear arms,” said Harvey.

In-person training for concealed carry permits

One area where there was not much contention or debate was with SB 195, which would require Coloradans to attend in-person training before getting a concealed carry permit.

The bill passed the Senate Judiciary Committee Monday on a 3-2 party-line vote, but the measure received bipartisan preliminary approval from the Senate on Friday.

Currently, Coloradans are allowed to take online training in order to fulfill permit requirements. The measure would require classes offered by certified instructors.

An amendment passed that would allow some training online, but ultimately there would need to be an in-person training component.

“Online training isn’t sufficient,” said Tochtrop. “Nothing can substitute for in-person training with a gun. Shooters need to know what it’s like to use their weapons.”

Spotlight shines on Capitol

Lawmakers have been motivated by hordes of citizens who lined the circular halls under the Gold Dome on Monday, when the seven bills made their first Senate committee hearings. Lines formed as the sergeants-at-arms attempted to create order for the hundreds of citizens who sought to testify.

Outside, opponents circled the Capitol in their vehicles, waving yellow Revolutionary War-era Gadsden flags — made popular recently by liberty groups — in an effort to tell lawmakers, “Don’t tread on me.” They blasted air and car horns, which echoed throughout the Capitol for hours and penetrated committee hearings.

A plane flying overhead displayed a banner message for Hickenlooper: “Hick: Do not take our guns.”

The governor has not officially opposed any of the proposals being considered. He has very publicly supported creating a universal background check.

Many citizens complained that they traveled distances to the Capitol, but were unable to testify. Democratic committee chairs had limited testimony because of the sheer number of people who arrived to comment.

Sen. Kevin Lundberg, R-Berthoud, felt the need to apologize to citizens during the Senate Judiciary Committee on Monday.

“I apologize that many have come from many, many miles away, have been waiting for hours upon end trying to get in just to give their input as a citizen of this state at the public haring that is once again constitutionally guaranteed,” he addressed the audience. “I apologize that the choice was made to put all seven bills in one day.”

Sen. Irene Aguilar, D-Denver, during the same committee, scolded some citizens for outbursts, as well as for the honking outside.

“I continue to be amazed at the hostility that we are hearing from people who are opposed…” she declared. “Honking disrespectfully around the building… I’ve never seen such unprofessional behavior and such emotion-filled inability to think about what the consequences have been in the lives of these people whose lives have been irreparably harmed.”

Peter@coloradostatesman.com