Congress urged to follow Colorado

The Colorado Statesman

President Barack Obama urged Congress to follow Colorado’s lead by enacting “common sense” proposals to reduce gun violence, including expanding background checks for all firearms sales, in a speech on Wednesday at the Denver Police Academy.

“If we’re really going to tackle this problem seriously, then we’ve got to get Congress to take the next step,” Obama said. “As soon as next week, they will be voting. As soon as next week, every senator will get to vote on whether or not we should require background checks for anyone who wants to purchase a gun.”

Denver Police Chief Robert White introduces President Barack Obama. White had just participated in a roundtable discussion about efforts to reduce gun violence with the president, other law enforcement officers, elected officials and family members of victims.
Photo by Ernest Luning/The Colorado Statesman

The Senate is set to take up gun-control bills after lawmakers return from recess, although some components of an initial legislative package — including a revived ban on assault-style weapons — have been dropped from the proposal. Last week, three Republican senators threatened to filibuster the measures, a move Obama characterized as “obscure procedural stunts to prevent or delay any of these votes on reform.”

State Rep. Rhonda Fields, D-Aurora, speaks with Senate President John Morse, D-Colorado Springs, as the audience awaits the arrival of President Barack Obama. The president visited Denver to call for Congress to follow Colorado’s example and enact stricter gun-control measures, including some like those sponsored by Fields.
Photo by Ernest Luning/The Colorado Statesman

“The only way this time will be different is if the American people demand that this time it must be different — that this time, we must do something to protect our communities and our kids,” Obama told a crowd of several hundred gathered inside a gymnasium at the police training facility.

Carole Bell holds a portrait of her son Christopher, who died in a gun accident in 1981, when he was 14, before President Barack Obama was set to speak about measures to reduce gun violence. “That was my 9/11,” she says. “We have to do something.”
Photo by Ernest Luning/The Colorado Statesman

It was Obama’s first trip to Colorado since winning reelection in November, when he carried the state for the second time. He plans to carry his pitch next week to Connecticut, where a gunman killed 20 children and six teachers at an elementary school in December, stepping up pressure on lawmakers to do something about gun violence. (Late Wednesday night, Connecticut legislators passed a gun-control package called the toughest in the nation.)

Nederland Mayor Joe Gierlach speaks with state Sen. Rollie Heath, D-Boulder, before President Barack Obama arrived to address gun violence.
Photo by Ernest Luning/The Colorado Statesman

“I’ve come to Denver today, in particular, because Colorado is proving a model of what’s possible,” Obama said, praising Gov. John Hickenlooper and Democratic legislators for passing a series of gun-control laws, including what he described as “tougher background checks that won’t infringe on the rights of responsible gun owners, but will help keep guns out of the hands of dangerous people.”

U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet, Lt. Gov. Joe Garcia, Gov. John Hickenlooper and U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder listen to President Barack Obama deliver remarks about efforts to reduce gun violence. The four had just taken part in a closed-door roundtable with Obama, other elected officials and family members of victims.
Photo by Ernest Luning/The Colorado Statesman

Last month, as the state Capitol was engulfed a storm of controversy, Hickenlooper signed three bills aimed at curbing gun violence, including one that restricted large-capacity magazines, another requiring background checks for all gun buyers, and a third passing the cost of the background checks on to customers. Two other Democratic-sponsored bills concerning guns are making their way through the legislature.

Colorado Democratic senators gather after remarks by President Barack Obama asking Congress to vote on proposals meant to reduce gun violence. From left, Sens. Evie Hudak, D-Arvada, Rollie Heath, D-Boulder, Andy Kerr, D-Lakewood, Mary Hodge, D-Brighton, and Senate Majority Leader Morgan Carroll, D-Aurora.
Photo by Ernest Luning/The Colorado Statesman

“This is a state that has suffered the tragedy of two of the worst mass shootings in our history,” Obama said, citing the rampages at Columbine High School in 1999 and at an Aurora movie theater last summer. “But this is also a state that treasures its Second Amendment rights, the state of proud hunters and sportsmen. There’s a strong tradition of gun ownership that’s handed down from generation to generation, and it’s part of the fabric of people’s lives. And they treat gun ownership with reverence and respect.

“I’m here because I believe there doesn’t have to be a conflict in reconciling these realities,” he continued. “There doesn’t have to be a conflict between protecting our citizens and protecting our Second Amendment rights.”

He pointed to recent public polling that shows overwhelming majorities of Americans — including gun owners and National Rifle Association members — support universal background checks, though gun-rights advocates say that different polls show wildly different results based on how questions are worded and varying definitions of proposals.

Before his speech, Obama presided over a roundtable discussion on gun violence with Attorney General Eric Holder and a group of local elected officials, law enforcement officers, sportsmen and family members of gun-violence victims, including the father of a student slain in the Columbine massacre and a woman who survived the Aurora theater shooting last summer.

Among those at the table were Hickenlooper, Lt. Gov. Joe Garcia, U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet, U.S. Reps. Diana DeGette and Ed Perlmutter, and Denver Mayor Michael Hancock and Aurora Mayor Steve Hogan.

Obama said that, while mental health programs and effective policing are essential to protect communities, “there is also no doubt that the kind of damage that can be done if you don’t have strong background checks,” according to a pool report on the meeting, which was closed to the press shortly after the president joined the group.

About a mile away, more than a dozen Colorado sheriffs held what they called a “pre-buttal” to Obama’s remarks, denying that there was any consensus on what constitutes common-sense approaches to gun safety.

Larimer County Sheriff Justin Smith lambasted Obama for “hiding behind the walls of the Denver Police Academy” and appearing with a “handpicked” crowd of supporters and police officers Smith said had been “coerced” into providing a backdrop for the president.

“We are here to provide a voice to the millions of honest, law-abiding Coloradans who were ignored by their governor as well as the majority party in the state House,” Smith said. He decried “continued efforts to impose more and more gun control laws on Colorado.”

Smith said that instead of just listening to gun-control advocates such as New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, Obama “needs to be brave enough to step away from the staged media events like he’s holding later today” and “sit down and listen to the opinions of those who have different viewpoints.”

In his speech, Obama said he was attempting to bridge divides between Americans who have starkly different experiences with guns. His wife, Michelle, for instance, told him during last year’s presidential campaign that she’d “probably want a gun” if she lived on a farm. An Illinois woman, on the other hand, said she was trying to understand how her son had been killed in a random shooting while he was on his way to school.

“Now, both those things are true,” Obama said. “And sometimes we’re so divided between rural and urban, and folks whose hunting is part of their lives and folks whose only experience with guns is street crime. And the two sides just talk past one another.” Hunters, sportsmen and those who keep a gun for protection have to “understand what it feels like for that mom whose son was randomly shot,” while those worried about street crime have to “understand what it might be like if you grew out on a ranch and your dad had been taking you hunting all your life.”

“If we start listening to each other, then we should be able to get something done that’s constructive,” Obama said. “We should be able to get that done.”

On the way in to the Obama event, state Rep. Rhonda Fields, D-Aurora, a chief sponsor of the state law banning large-capacity magazines, told The Colorado Statesman that she was happy to see “Colorado leading the way as it relates to gun-safety reform.”

Fields, who entered politics after her son and his fiancé were gunned down on an Aurora street seven years ago, and whose district was the site of the Aurora theater shooting, said she believes the nation can begin to solve the epidemic of gun violence.

“I think it takes persistence, it takes leadership and it takes courage,” she said. “When you look at what our city has been through, what our nation has been through, Colorado has led the way before, as it relates to closing the gun-show loophole, so it wasn’t that much more to ask to go ahead and address private gun sales as well. I think we were halfway there. There’s just an appetite for it.”

But not everyone agrees.

State GOP chief Ryan Call on Wednesday slammed DeGette, the sponsor of a federal ban on high-capacity magazines, for confusing bullets and magazines — reloadable devices that hold ammunition — in remarks she made earlier this week at a forum on gun violence sponsored by The Denver Post.

Coloradans, Call said, should be concerned that DeGette is pushing legislation about a subject she apparently doesn’t understand.

“Rep. DeGette and the Democrats in Denver and Washington should spend more time listening to the views and priorities of their own constituents, instead of out-of-state radicals advancing an agenda decidedly disconnected from our Colorado values,” Call said.

The next morning, Call piled on, sending a fundraising email headlined, “Are you kidding?”

“President Obama was in Colorado with one message yesterday — responsible, law abiding citizens should not have the right to bear arms,” Call wrote before asking for a donation to the state GOP.

A spokesman for the Colorado Republicans said that Call was referring to Obama’s endorsement of recently signed Colorado legislation — all passed without the support of a single Republican, the spokesman noted — including the bill that bans magazines holding more than 15 rounds. Critics contend that the law was written sloppily and would, in fact, ban many magazines of any size because they can be easily converted to higher capacity.

When he signed the bill, Hickenlooper issued a signing statement that acknowledged “concerns about the vagueness” defining which magazines it covers. He wrote that he signed the bill “based on the understanding that it will be interpreted and applied narrowly and consistently” with constitutional protections in mind.

Ernest@coloradostatesman.com