New gun rights group formed to target lawmakers

The Colorado Statesman

A nonprofit advocating for Second Amendment rights has formed to remind lawmakers that they remain a moving target.

Following bitter recalls in which two Senate Democrats have already been recalled from office, and another resigned rather than face a recall election, the Colorado Second Amendment Association was created to build upon the grassroots momentum behind last year’s recall efforts.

The founders of the new 501(c)(4) are many of the same people behind the recall of Senate President John Morse of Colorado Springs, which was led by the issue committee Basic Freedom Defense Fund. Members also include citizens who were active in the recall of Sen. Angela Giron of Pueblo, and in the recall attempt of Sen. Evie Hudak of Westminster.

Members of the group say they are forming to “support the state’s shooting community through educational opportunities and social connections, and organize that community into a network of citizens working together to preserve and expand those rights in every corner of the state.”

But Luke Wagner, president of the Colorado Second Amendment Association, acknowledges that a big part of his group’s function will be to remind lawmakers that if they lean in the direction of gun control, they could face the wrath of gun-supporting Colorado citizens.

“I think we got their attention,” Wagner quipped outside the Capitol on Monday where the group announced its launch.

“That is the entire point of this new organization, to not lose what we did last year,” he continued, referring to the recent recalls. “We got their attention, and so now we want to have an organization that takes everyone’s voice, gets everyone to stand together and forces them to continue to listen.”

“We don’t want to be the ones in the building who claim to represent the people,” added Keith Coniglio, secretary of the group’s board. “We want every citizen who feels that their right is threatened to stand up for themselves.

“We like to think of it as a dojo for political self defense,” he added.

The Colorado Second Amendment Association joins an already loud gun advocacy scene, in which Rocky Mountain Gun Owners, the National Rifle Association and the Firearms Coalition of Colorado all advocate for Second Amendment issues.

There have been longstanding tensions between the gun lobby groups, including an initial rejection of the recall efforts by Rocky Mountain Gun Owners and infighting between RMGO, the NRA and the Firearms Coalition.

Some of those heated exchanges subsided when RMGO became active in the recall attempt of Hudak, paying for a petition gathering drive.

But Wagner believes there is a way for all of the gun rights groups to co-exist, suggesting that his 501(c)(4) can complement the other efforts by igniting a grassroots base. He does not see it as a competition against groups like RMGO, which has long been a political machine even above its gun advocacy work.

“We see this as a ‘the more the merrier’ bit of a situation, where the more people that are paying attention to what’s going on in the legislature, the more people involved, the more people working together — the better off we’ll all be,” explained Wagner.

Coniglio said that while the other gun groups do lobbying for its members, the Colorado Second Amendment Association is encouraging citizens to take charge of their own advocacy efforts.

“Most of the other organizations are focused on representing citizens and protecting their Second Amendment rights,” he said. “What we want to focus on is getting people to stand up for themselves. I don’t want to represent your rights, I want to help you represent your own.”

The nonprofit has already been making its presence known at the legislature. While Democrats are not pushing any new gun control measures this year, several Republicans are planning measures aimed at rolling back the laws from last year.

Those laws include requiring background checks even for private sales and transfers; banning high-capacity ammunition magazines; and making it more difficult for domestic violence suspects to possess a firearm.

At least one bill has already been introduced that would repeal the universal background check law. Senate Bill 94, sponsored by Sen. George Rivera, R-Pueblo, was assigned to the Senate State, Veterans and Military Affairs Committee, where Democrats will likely kill it after what is expected to be a lengthy hearing. The measure had not been scheduled as of press time on Thursday.

Republicans have introduced other gun rights bills, including:

• House Bill 1041, sponsored by Reps. Jared Wright of Fruita and Chris Holbert of Parker, and Sen. Kevin Grantham, R-Canon City. The measure would allow concealed carry of a handgun without a permit;

• House Bill 1063, sponsored by Rep. Justin Everett, R-Littleton, and Grantham, which would extend the so-called “Make My Day” law to businesses, allowing deadly force against intruders at a place of business;

• House Bill 1097, sponsored by Rep. Clarice Navarro, R-Pueblo, and Rivera, which would create a tax exemption for firearms, ammunition and accessories;

• Senate Bill 38, sponsored by Sen. Scott Renfroe, R-Greeley, and Everett, which would prohibit the governor from restricting firearms during a declared disaster emergency; and

• Senate Bill 90, sponsored by Sen. Randy Baumgardner, R-Hot Sulphur Springs, which would eliminate a requirement for background checks between step-relatives.

“We’re going to keep anything on our radar in terms of gun rights, or repealing current laws that were passed last session, or anything involving victim advocacy,” explained Coniglio.

The group is not solely focused on gun advocacy. Kim Weeks is leading its victim advocacy work. She herself is the victim of a sex assault in Weld County. Weeks believes more of a focus needs to be placed on victim advocacy, rather than gun control.

“It’s not one that is easy to stand up and talk about because there are so many things that get lost in the mix,” said Weeks.

“There are plenty of people like me who get so much backlash when they are standing up for that side that shouldn’t be,” she continued. “It should be everyone working together because you have to know your rights.”

Weeks, along with the Colorado Second Amendment Association, will be working to shift the conversation away from gun control.

“I’m not asking you to be a gun advocate and carry, I’m asking you to respect my rights…” she said. “Thankfully, with the recalls, we are sending a message that we will be listened to.”

Tim Knight, who led the Basic Freedom Defense Fund and is now a member of the Second Amendment Association, believes the effort is about accountability and education.

“It’s important that people understand there is accountability and that legislative tyranny won’t be the issue,” he said. “We can help educate people, both with our help and later letting them understand how to do it, so that they can effect inside the building.”

As a 501(c)(4), the Colorado Second Amendment Association could have a lot of financial power as well, if they take in contributions. As a (c)(4), the group is able to engage in electioneering, as long as that is not its primary function.

The group is also able to spend unlimited amounts of so-called “dark money” on independent expenditures and electioneering communications because it does not have to disclose its donors.

Wagner has not ruled out the possibility of advocating for candidates and issues. He said he is already supporting Victor Head in his bid to unseat Democratic Pueblo Clerk and Recorder Gilbert “Bo” Ortiz. Head, a Republican, led the successful recall of Giron.

“As far as donations and memberships go, it’s something we’ve discussed as running ads, maybe to support or maybe to go against particular candidates running into 2014,” said Wagner.

But Senate President Morgan Carroll, D-Aurora, said she and her Democratic colleagues are not living in fear following the recalls.

“We’ve got too much to do to spend our life in fear,” she said. “If we’re representing the needs and interests of the people in our communities, that’s really what we’re here to do.”

The Colorado Coalition Against Gun Violence is asking lawmakers to “stand strong” against any attempts at rolling back gun control. They point out that the background check law itself is supported by as many as 85 percent of Coloradans, and that it has blocked 104 sales to those who are prohibited from owning a gun.

“Why would we repeal a law that has been successful in protecting our families and making our communities safer?” asked Jennifer Hope, regional leader of Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America. “Because of the new background check requirement for private gun sales, dozens of people who have been convicted of violent crimes have been denied a gun. I don’t understand why anyone would want to make it easier for dangerous criminals to obtain guns.”

Addressing safety

No matter what direction the Colorado Second Amendment Association heads in, they are sure to face a firestorm of debate over safety.

The conversation has reignited following the recent Arapahoe High School shooting, in which a student killed a 17-year-old fellow classmate before turning the gun on himself.

Lawmakers on Wednesday morning heard from experts on the state of school safety. Legislators may attempt to pass bills around school safety, with Republicans already proposing the idea of arming teachers, though a bill had not been introduced as of press time. A similar effort failed last year.

Holbert stopped short of advocating for guns in schools during the school safety hearing, but he suggested that it is something that should be considered.

“We saw evidence of what a school resource officer can do at Arapahoe,” Holbert said, referencing the school resource officer who quickly approached the Arapahoe High School gunman, likely bringing the shooting to a quick end and potentially saving lives.

“Is there an avenue we might explore? I know some would advocate for arming staff in schools…” he continued.

Sgt. Doug Ross, supervisor of the Longmont Police Department’s school resource officer program, said that he himself supports gun rights. But at the briefing on Wednesday, he questioned the practicality of arming teachers, administrators and personnel.

“I’m kind of a gun guy. I carry a gun for a living. I see the value in extreme, acute situations of being prepared for that response,” explained Ross. “The concern I have is that marksmanship skills, decision-making skills, being able to react under stress, takes a lot of training to develop.”

Lawmakers heard that prevention is probably the best tool they have. They were encouraged to invest more money into mental health services at schools to reduce caseloads.

Samantha Haviland, a survivor of the Columbine High School massacre, addressed lawmakers. She is the director of counseling for Denver Public Schools.

“School counselors are on the frontline of mental health services for our students,” she said. “On average, there are now 400 kids per school counselor, but that’s only counting schools that have counselors, and it varies by grade level. We need to fill the gaps.”

One area in which lawmakers plan on making an investment is in the Safe2Tell program, which provides an anonymous hotline for students to report school safety problems to authorities.

As a nonprofit, the program was at risk of being shut down due to a lack of funding. But lawmakers have introduced Senate Bill 2, which would transfer the program over to the state to keep it operational. It would be managed by the Attorney General’s Office.

At a news conference on Jan. 7 highlighting the legislation, Attorney General John Suthers pointed out that since 2004, 9,818 tips have been received by the Safe2Tell program, including 2,436 cases of bullying, 1,500 suicide interventions, 295 assaults, 71 domestic violence cases, 450 child abuse cases, 62 gang cases, 835 threats of violence, 334 cases of guns in schools, 507 sexual crimes, and instances in which attacks on schools were planned.

“The success is shown, the need is great, and it’s time to ensure that as we deal with the threats of violence in schools going forward, Safe2Tell has a secure and viable funding base,” said Suthers.

Gov. John Hickenlooper also joined the news conference, pointing out that the program prevented 31 school attacks. He said school safety should not be a partisan issue, highlighting that he is a Democrat, but Suthers is a Republican.

“In a day that is increasingly partisan… it gives me a certain pride, and I think it should give all Coloradans a sense of pride that our attorney general, I may be a Democrat, he may be a Republican, but I can’t think of a single instance where he has ever acted in a political, or partisan way in his office,” said Hickenlooper.

Overall public safety

School safety and guns aren’t the only issues lawmakers are working on this year in the public safety arena. Democrats and Republicans have suggested an array of proposals, including measures that would:

• Automatically send a parolee who tampers with their monitoring bracelet back to prison;

• Provide a felony sentence for multiple convictions for driving under the influence;

• Establish a stronger sentence for persons convicted of vehicular manslaughter or homicide as a result of alcohol or drugs;

• Institute motorcycle operator safety training;

• Provide grants for local firefighter safety;

• Support benefits for wildfire responders who die in the line of duty;

• Create a suicide prevention commission;

• Restrict fireworks;

• Cut back on cyber crimes and bullying; and

• Revisit requiring a DNA sample to be submitted for certain misdemeanor convictions.

Peter@coloradostatesman.com