House rifles through final gun legislation

The Colorado Statesman

The great legislative gun debate of 2013 has nearly concluded, with a less than explosive ending to one of the most controversial policy issues facing the legislature this year.

The House on Monday voted 36-28, with one lawmaker excused, backing Senate Bill 197, which would require domestic violence offenders and people with restraining orders to surrender their firearms. Reps. Beth McCann, D-Denver, and Rhonda Fields, D-Aurora, and Sen. Evie Hudak, D-Westminster, sponsored the measure.

The House on Monday also approved Senate Bill 195, which would require in-person training for a concealed carry permit. The measure passed by a vote of 40-24, with one lawmaker excused. Rep. Jenise May, D-Aurora, and Sen. Lois Tochtrop, D-Thornton, sponsored the measure.

Both bills are awaiting Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper’s decision. He has not indicated opposition to the measures. Once the governor receives the bills, he has 10 days to sign or veto the legislation.

The two bills faced far less debate than three other controversial gun control measures already signed by the governor. Those measures include:

• House Bill 1224, which bans high-capacity ammunition magazines capable of holding more than 15 rounds;

• House Bill 1229, which implements a universal background check, closing a loophole for private sales and transfers of firearms; and

• House Bill 1228, which requires a fee for background checks related to firearms purchases.

The five measures nearly complete an ambitious agenda laid forth by Democrats in the wake of the horrific July Aurora movie theater massacre that left 12 dead and 58 injured, followed by the December Sandy Hook Elementary School mass shooting in Newtown, Conn., which claimed the lives of 20 children and six adults. Victims of the 1999 Columbine High School massacre, in which 12 students and one teacher were murdered, also joined the call this year for increased gun control.

Democrats found themselves in the crosshair of Republicans and Second Amendment supporters who argued that majority Democrats made a grab for their constitutional right to possess a firearm.

The story throughout the year gained momentum as the national spotlight shined on the Western, libertarian state of Colorado. Vice President Joe Biden looked to Colorado Democrats to advance President Barack Obama’s gun control agenda, while conservative bloggers and media personalities attacked the other side of the aisle for over-reaching policy.

At one point during the debate, Rep. Joe Salazar, D-Thornton, found himself on the defensive after commenting that women might feel like they’re going to be raped when they’re really not, which could result in accidental shootings.

Hudak also found herself in the hot seat after suggesting that statistics do not indicate that carrying a firearm adequately protects a woman against rape. Her comment came after testimony from a Nevada rape victim who was prohibited from carrying a gun on her University of Nevada campus in Reno, despite having a concealed-carry permit.

Businesses also entered the debate, including Erie-based Magpul Industries Corp, the makers of high-capacity ammunition magazines, which threatened to leave the state if lawmakers pursued restricting firearms and accessories. The company says it is in the process of relocating, but has yet to choose a state for its headquarters.

Hunters across the nation have also vowed to boycott Colorado in an effort to protest the new gun control laws. And The Outdoor Channel has promised to quit production in Colorado as a result of the laws. The International Defensive Pistol Association has also said it will cancel its Rocky Mountain regional championship scheduled for Montrose July 4-6.

Meanwhile, 37 of the state’s 62 elected sheriffs have agreed to sue the state in an effort to overturn at least two of the new gun control laws — prohibiting the sale of high-capacity magazines and a universal background check system. David Kopel, research director of the Libertarian Independence Institute, and adjunct Professor of Advanced Constitutional Law at the University of Denver’s Sturm College of Law, is leading the lawsuit.

In the aftermath of the debate, four Democratic lawmakers are facing recall elections. Senate President John Morse of Colorado Springs, Rep. Mike McLachlan of Durango, and Sen. Angela Giron of Pueblo and Hudak are all defending against issue committees that have been established to oust them.

But despite the drama along the emotional roller coaster ride, Democrats maintained their commitment to enacting restrictions. They only lost two bills along the way, which were actually killed by the Democratic sponsors themselves.

Morse spiked his 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 he asked to kill his House Bill 1226, which would have prohibited concealed carry on college campuses.

Domestic violence

It was obvious that the controversial discussion was winding down when the House on April 19 debated the domestic violence bill on second reading. In fact, there was barely any debate when the measure came up for a final vote on Monday.

Republicans at least made an attempt at resistance during the second reading debate, when Minority Leader Mark Waller of Colorado Springs suggested that federal law already requires domestic violence offenders to surrender their weapons.

“I want nothing more than to make sure that women and children, or any victim of domestic violence, is taken care of… But I’m not sure this bill accomplishes that,” said Waller, who has experience as a prosecutor. “In fact, I’m not sure this bill accomplishes that at all.”

He pointed out that the likelihood of being injured by a weapon in a domestic violence incident is immediately before when guns would be turned over, thereby rendering the law inadequate.

Rep. Lori Saine, R-Dacono, agreed, telling a personal experience of her own near experience with domestic violence.

“I decided I was going to leave a relationship, and the other person wasn’t happy about that…” she recalled. “I’m kind of strong, but he’s got me by length, and so if he decided that he was going to kill me that night, he could have, and choking is no joke either.

“So, as far as regulating what we can do in that type of situation, we’re not going to regulate somebody who’s going to choke, or stab somebody with a knife…” Saine continued. “Taking guns out and confiscating weapons isn’t going to make anyone safer, including children.”

But Fields said the overall intent of the measure is to protect families, and that the legislature should do everything in its power to at least attempt to do so.

“This bill is about keeping families and children safe,” Fields implored during floor debate. “When a woman is involved in a domestic abusive relationship, the chances of her being harmed are great. So, what we’re trying to do is we’re trying to get those guns out of those families’ homes, transfer those guns either to a family member, or to law enforcement… We’re trying to protect the people, the kids, the family, the women…”

There was also limited debate on requiring in-person training for a concealed carry permit. The bill had the most bipartisan support of all the gun bills, and lawmakers appeared to be exhausted by the overall firearms debate.

Rep. Amy Stephens, R-Monument, asked a few questions about whether the measure might lead the state towards more overall government mandates: “What does concern me… I’m concerned about the slippery slope here,” she said.

But overall, the measure did not appear to be overly contentious.

Mental health still on horizon

Democrats are still pushing mental health legislation, though the measure is not part of the Democrats’ immediate gun control agenda.

House Bill 1306, sponsored by McCann, would authorize a task force to study guns in the hands of people suffering from a mental health issue.

The measure is currently moving through the House. It makes no statutory changes, though the task force could recommend legislation when it files a report by Jan. 15, 2015.

Some in the mental health community have raised concerns that legislation restricting guns to those with a mental health issue could discourage those people from seeking counseling.

Republicans have joined in the opposition. The bill made it through the Health, Insurance and Environment Committee Tuesday on a 6-5 party-line vote. It squeaked through the House Legislative Council Committee Friday on a vote of 10-8. The measure now heads to Appropriations.

“I look forward to a robust discussion with stakeholders who have many points of view about appropriate next steps,” said McCann. “But I must say, I am disappointed that after revising the bill to incorporate all of the suggestions from Republican leadership, none of the Republicans on the committee voted for it.”

Peter@coloradostatesman.com