Eleven years ago, Democratic state lawmakers faced protests and recalls over their passage of a high-capacity magazine ban and universal background checks for gun buyers in the wake of the Aurora and Sandy Hook mass shootings. The legislation cost two senators their seats, including the Senate president, and a third resigned.
The backlash left a scar on Democratic leaders, even as the recalled lawmakers said they had no regrets. For several years, legislators introduced few gun-reform bills, and none passed.
But that timidity is now long gone — a turnaround attributable to increasing Democratic electoral dominance in Colorado and growing gun-reform activism that’s been fueled by a local backdrop of mass shootings as well as grimly routine gun violence and suicides. A new cadre of Democratic lawmakers have embraced firearms policy in a big way. They’ve been spurred on by an expanding voter base that, rather than punishing them, has shown up to the Capitol to demand they do more.
“There are pockets and communities that feel very strongly about Second Amendment rights,” said Rep. Steven Woodrow, a Denver Democrat. “But in terms of it being electoral kryptonite — in terms of it being an issue where … you’ve got to worry about hordes of people showing up to the Capitol — I think now the view of our caucus is: Let them show up.”
More than a decade removed from the protests and recalls of 2013, Democratic lawmakers are set to unveil as many as 10 gun-control and -reform bills this session. The measures cover a swath of policy, from new training requirements for concealed-carry permits to mandated insurance for gun owners to a ban on purchasing so-called assault weapons, including semi-automatic rifles.
Collectively, they represent the largest single-year gun reform push in recent memory.
The question is no longer whether tackling gun control is too politically risky. Democrats instead face other questions — chiefly, how far to go legislatively and when to act. Those have spurred internal debates among lawmakers and their leaders, who also are eying the temperature of a sometimes-skeptical Gov. Jared Polis.
Some Democrats have hesitated to support legislation that would ban several kinds of semi-automatic firearms: The “assault weapons” ban introduced last year was defeated by a majority-Democrat committee, and intraparty debates about it helped sink the Democrats’ newly launched gun-violence prevention caucus.
While Democrats have more than enough seats in the House and Senate to pass what they want, Republicans’ historic power deficits in both chambers don’t mean conservatives have no ability to fight back.
Gun rights supporters, who see many of the Democrats’ proposals as affronts to the Second Amendment, are emboldened by a 2022 U.S. Supreme Court decision that set a higher legal bar for gun restrictions. The ruling has made the court system more receptive to challenges.
“The Democrats are looking for what that line is because they want to go right up to it,” said Rep. Matt Soper, a Delta Republican. “Really, from my perspective, the courts are going to be the backstop. We’re not going to stop any of these gun bills (in the Capitol), just because we’re so outnumbered.”
Red-flag law seen as a turning point
Former state Sen. Evie Hudak, a Westminster Democrat, is struck by the shift in political dynamics facing gun measures. She was the lawmaker who resigned in 2013 in the face of a threatened recall over that year’s new gun laws; she remains skeptical that the recall would have succeeded, she said, but she wanted to avoid putting her county through the cost of a special election.
She still remembers the vitriol levied at her by “extremist gun supporters” during the 2013 debate, including one threat deemed serious enough to warrant a law enforcement investigation.
Hudak is among lawmakers and observers who point to a moment, in 2019, when the political risks noticeably shifted. Democrats faced no electoral backlash after passing the state’s red-flag law in the year they regained their current political trifecta in state government, with control of both legislative chambers and the governor’s office. The law allows a judge to temporarily confiscate a person’s firearms if they’re determined to be a danger to themselves or others.
“For several years after I resigned, (the legislature) wouldn’t touch it with a 10-foot pole,” Hudak said of gun legislation. “Then slowly, I think, they put forward the extreme risk protection order, and the conversation around that was very supportive.
“That gave the legislators the viewpoint that maybe things have changed and that it was time. People would be open to considering more regulations.”
Since approving the red-flag law — which was expanded last year in response to the Club Q shooting in Colorado Springs — the legislature has passed notable legislation instituting a three-day waiting period for gun purchases; banning unserialized “ghost” guns; making it easier for victims and their families to sue gun manufacturers and dealers; mandating that firearms be stored safely and securely; and increasing the minimum age for gun purchases from 18 to 21. The last bill has been put on hold by a judge while a legal challenge plays out.
In contrast to even a year ago, when a package of gun bills was publicly announced at once, Democratic lawmakers have taken a less-coordinated approach. So many legislators are working on the issue — and their communication has been so curtailed by a recent open-meetings lawsuit — that some weren’t aware of the entire breadth of the gun measures were being drafted.
This year’s likely proposals also include one that would require gun stores, which already are federally licensed, to obtain a state permit to sell firearms. Another would provide nearly $1.7 million to the Colorado Bureau of Investigation to aid investigations of sales to ineligible individuals. Lawmakers also want to expand gun-free zones to more places than covered under current law.
Though many of the bills aren’t the sort of eye-catching proposals that have been pushed in years past, this year’s slate represents a uniquely broad, multi-pronged effort. Democratic leaders say the legislation would tighten existing gun laws in a bid to ensure that restrictions already enacted — and those passed in the future — are actually enforceable.
“A lot of the big structural policies have been done,” said Senate President Steve Fenberg, a Boulder Democrat. The new bills are “not like the red-flag law, where it’s been adopted in many states and the question is if we want to do it or not. We’re getting more down into the policy nuances, which I think is a good thing.”
“A conversation we should have every single day”
Sen. Tom Sullivan, a Centennial Democrat who’s been a longtime advocate for stricter gun regulations, called this round of bill introductions “one of my most successful” for its efficiency. The speedy, unheralded introductions also fulfill a goal of Sullivan’s: treating gun violence as a horrible, but everyday, problem for the legislature to address, not as an exception that merits press conferences to trumpet lawmakers’ intentions.
Gun violence is an ongoing public health crisis and should be treated as such, Sullivan said. Since the day his son, Alex, was murdered in the 2012 Aurora theater massacre, he said, annual gun deaths in the United States have only risen.
“This is a conversation we should have every single day,” Sullivan said of efforts to reverse that trend. “And I think (these slate of bills) are proving that out. People are talking about it every day.”
Supporters say the bills are broadly intended to improve enforcement of existing gun laws: The CBI bill, for instance, would help the state crack down on gun sales that are already illegal. The bill requiring that gun stores carry a state license is an attempt to ensure that dealers here are following state laws. Legislators said federal investigators have been lax in enforcing dealer laws.
“It’s an enforcement mechanism for the laws that we have passed here in Colorado,” said Rep. Emily Sirota, a Denver Democrat sponsoring the dealer-permitting bill. “The vast majority of them do follow Colorado laws, but … there would be consequences if they chose not to.”
The likely bill to ban semi-automatic rifles and some other high-powered firearms is certain to draw the fiercest debate on both sides of the aisle.
A similar bill last year sparked internal division among House and Senate Democrats. Sponsor Rep. Elisabeth Epps was among those who argued the bill should move forward, given Democratic voters’ support for a ban on assault-style weapons.
But others, including Sullivan, felt the bill wouldn’t save as many lives as other measures and that debate over it would consume the Capitol. He also argued it would enlist survivors of gun violence to testify and relive their traumas for a bill that lacked a path to becoming law.
The bill died during its first committee vote after three Democrats joined with Republicans against it.
This year’s version, set to be unveiled soon, is again backed by Epps, along with fellow Denver freshman Rep. Tim Hernández, who was appointed by a vacancy committee last summer.
On its face, the bill has better chances to advance this year, at least in the House: Two of the three Democratic legislators who helped kill it are either out of the legislature or off the House Judiciary Committee — though so is Epps, whose relationship with most of her colleagues has deteriorated in recent months. The new members of the committee, two progressive Democrats, are both likely to support the bill.
Still, internal debate continues. Sullivan argued the bill would save fewer lives than other policies, while fueling the purchase of weapons by ban-panicked buyers. Polis’ office has also reportedly been skeptical, avoiding comment on last year’s version to ANH.
Hernández acknowledged that mass shootings — which are commonly carried out with AR-style, semi-automatic rifles — represent a small fraction of gun-violence deaths. Still, he argued that Democrats’ success at the polls in Colorado was in part due to their work on gun-violence prevention. The party’s majorities are now 46-19 in the House and 23-12 in the Senate.
Also at play is growing, steady advocacy from gun-reform groups, who increasingly see Colorado as a model for other states to follow.
“We’ve built out the Democrat majority to be the strongest that it’s been in the state of Colorado in 85 years,” Hernández said. “It’s why communities are asking us to show up boldly.”
“They are not beating around the bush,” gun-rights group says
Depending on what lawmakers pass, the governor’s positions on some measures are still unclear — and several may face review by the courts.
In a new statement to The Post, Polis spokeswoman Shelby Wieman did not directly respond to questions about specific bills, many of which have yet to be introduced. She praised Colorado as “already leading the nation in improving public safety, including passing common sense gun violence prevention laws.”
“The governor sees reducing gun violence as part of his goal of making Colorado one of the 10 safest states,” Wieman wrote. “Gov. Polis is open to any legislation that makes Colorado safer and protects our Second Amendment rights and will monitor these bills as they move through the legislative process.”
Past years’ gun bills increasingly have been set on a collision course with a courtroom. Rocky Mountain Gun Owners, a conservative group that opposes virtually all reform efforts, has filed a slew of lawsuits against the state in recent years. It has notched some successes, including blocking last year’s law setting a higher age limit for purchases, while losing others.
On Thursday, the group tweeted that its attorneys were reviewing the new concealed-carry proposal, introduced the day before.
Taylor Rhodes, the group’s executive director, promised more litigation if any bills he sees as unconstitutional become law. The group has been fundraising from “extremely pissed” gun rights advocates to continue its court battles, he said.
“At this point, they have taken the gloves off and skated to center ice,” Rhodes said of Democratic legislators. “They are not trying to play cute, they are not beating around the bush. They are going for essentially the repeal of the Second Amendment.”
Democrats have been undeterred by the legal threats and have characterized the reliance on lawsuits — instead of prioritizing election challenges of Democrats — as a sign that the window of debate has shifted.
“It sort of validates what we’re doing because it means Rocky Mountain Gun Owners can’t elect people,” said Rep. Meg Froelich, an Englewood Democrat who’s co-sponsoring several gun bills this year. “Their people aren’t getting elected. They’re not moving the needle in the (Capitol) — so yeah, they have to go to court. I mean, they have to use their members’ money somehow.”
Republicans in the Capitol still plan to oppose bills during the session, as does Rhodes. But in the House, GOP lawmakers are a super-minority, preventing them from stopping Democrats from putting time limits on debates and curtailing Republican filibusters. They have slightly more power to push back in the Senate.
Republicans are still waiting to see the full picture of the gun-reform bills emerge. Soper, the Delta Republican, said he could see some Republicans potentially supporting the bill to boost investigations of illegal gun sales. But others, including Rep. Ty Winter, the House’s assistant minority leader, pledged to fight any bill they felt infringed on the Second Amendment.
Even in their diminished state, Winter and Soper said, Republicans are ready to fight — no matter if they can muster only echoes of 2013’s backlash.
“Certainly for assault weapons, expect us to bring everything we have,” Soper said. “Lock down the building, be up all night, a 24-hour filibuster if needed. We will use every rule in the rulebook, and we will definitely make our voices heard.”
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