Pro-gun bills ignite charges of partisan pandering

The Colorado Statesman

Republicans have introduced a flurry of early pro-gun bills in both chambers of the Colorado legislature, leaving gun control advocates speculating that the influx of legislation during a crucial election year serves to pander to conservative voters.

Many of the five pieces of legislation are either similar or identical to pro-gun bills pushed in Colorado over the last several years, such as easing restrictions on concealed handgun carry, background checks, gun control during a state of emergency, and the right of business owners or employees to defend themselves.

House Bill 1092, introduced by Rep. Kevin Priola, R-Henderson, would end the requirement to possess a permit in order to carry a concealed handgun in Colorado. An identical proposal in the Senate, Senate Bill 25, introduced by freshman Sen. Tim Neville, R-Littleton, would also remove the permit requirement to carry a concealed firearm.

One caveat of controversy surrounding concealed carry revolves around firearm possession on college campuses. In Colorado, university systems themselves rule on whether students can carry a concealed weapon on college campuses. For example, the University of Colorado has prohibited concealed carry on campus, while Colorado State University allows it.

Students for Concealed Carry on Campus has been challenging the University of Colorado’s ban on concealed weapons, filing a lawsuit in December 2008 in El Paso County District Court asking the court to reverse the ban. Attorneys representing the University of Colorado then filed a motion to dismiss the case, which was upheld by the court. The case is still in legal jumbo as the appeals process plays out.

Republican lawmakers are working to ease concealed carry restrictions for all Coloradans. Neville says SB 25 is about basic constitutional freedoms to carry a firearm in the United States.

“It comes down to a freedom of liberty and a less government issue, and empowering citizens to do something that should be a basic right — everybody being able to protect yourself and your family,” Neville explained.

He has modeled his legislation to last year’s House Bill 1205, sponsored by Rep. Chris Holbert, R-Parker. The bill passed the House with the support of seven Democrats, including Reps. Ed Casso, D-Commerce City, John Kefalas, D-Fort Collins, Wes McKinley, D-Walsh, Ed Vigil, D-Fort Garland, Pete Lee, D-Colorado Springs, Roger Wilson, D-Glenwood Springs, and Sal Pace, D-Pueblo, who is also running for Congress in Congressional District 3. Pace said he plans on voting for the bill again this year.

“Someone’s going to go shoot up a school whether or not they get a permit beforehand,” explained Pace. “These are easy choices for me.”

But last year’s HB 1205 still met its demise in the Democratic-leaning Senate State, Veterans and Military Affairs Committee. Neville’s bill is expected to be introduced into the Senate State, Veterans and Military Affairs Committee again where it will likely be killed. The committee has become known for killing pro-gun legislation.

The legislation in the House, HB 1092, is expected to repeat the same pattern as last year, making its way through that chamber but ultimately being quashed in Senate committee. Priola said he did not introduce identical legislation in the House over fears that the Senate version will fail in committee. He said he believes strongly in the issue and therefore wanted to run his own bill.

“The gun issue has been at the forefront for 40 years, and its slowly gained momentum. You have a lot of middle-age soccer moms that are taking concealed carry classes, and they realize that this is as American as anything, this is about protecting themselves against the bad guys,” Priola said.

But critics don’t believe that easing gun restrictions leads to a safer community. Eileen McCarron, spokeswoman for the Colorado Ceasefire Capitol Fund and an Aurora schoolteacher, said she is “appalled” to see the legislation popping up again this year at the legislature.

“We’ve lost our sanity about this; we’ve lost a lot of common sense, and I don’t believe the way we have a peaceful world with each other is that we’re in army camps, I believe we reach across and we trust one another,” she said.

McCarron said there are political motivations with the legislation. She pointed to a controversial Republican vacancy committee, which in November denied veteran state Rep. Jim Kerr, R-Littleton, a promotion to the upper chamber, instead choosing Neville. Neville’s supporters, including Dudley Brown, director of Rocky Mountain Gun Owners, a pro-gun advocacy group in Colorado, blasted Kerr for not being conservative enough, which helped propel Neville to victory. McCarron suggested that Neville is thanking Rocky Mountain Gun Owners for their support by introducing the legislation.

Luke O’Dell, a spokesman for both Rocky Mountain Gun Owners and the National Association for Gun Rights, does not deny that his organization supported Neville because of his commitment to pro-gun issues.

“Sen. Neville showed a very clear difference between him and Rep. Kerr at the time about where they stood on important issues like constitutional carry,” said O’Dell, adding that Kerr had once sponsored a bill banning gun sales on Sunday.

Majority Leader Amy Stephens takes a shot

McCarron said that House Majority Leader Amy Stephens, R-Monument, is also pandering to conservative voters by introducing her first pro-gun bill since being elected to the legislature in 2006.

Stephens has introduced House Bill 1064, which would prohibit the confiscation of firearms from citizens during declared emergencies. She says the impetus for the legislation came from Hurricane Katrina when New Orleans officials began confiscating firearms from citizens in the wake of widespread looting.

McCarron said it’s no surprise to her that Stephens is suddenly jumping on the pro-gun bandwagon, noting that Stephens is facing a primary in El Paso County with conservative stalwart Marsha Looper, a Republican lawmaker from Calhan.

“There’s a representative (Stephens) who has a primary candidate, and she needs to show happiness with the conservative voters,” said McCarron. “The Republicans have control of the House and they’re going to shove as many of these things as they can in there …”

Even Republican Sen. Greg Brophy of Wray, who is sponsoring Priola’s HB 1092 in the Senate, suggested that Stephens has ulterior motives for introducing her legislation.

“Some people run gun bills when they’re running for office and have a primary that they’re facing…” said Brophy. “You cannot question anybody’s motives; you can only make observations to their actions. And my observation is that some people have never introduced gun bills before they’re faced with the possibility of having a primary.”

Stephens shrugged off the accusations, telling The Colorado Statesman that she has regularly co-sponsored pro-gun bills during her tenure at the Capitol, and has excellent working relationships with pro-gun groups.
“I’m big on the Second Amendment. It’s not surprising at all, and kind of is really a natural extension of my support and continued support of gun rights,” Stephens said of HB 1064. “There’s nothing political about it.”

Protecting businesses and eliminating CBI background check requirement

Republicans have also introduced a pro-gun bill eliminating a requirement that the Colorado Bureau of Investigation perform a separate background check before a firearms dealer sells a weapon.

House Bill 1048, introduced by Rep. Mark Waller, R-Colorado Springs, notes that federal law already requires a firearms dealer to complete a background check of a prospective buyer through the national instant criminal background check system. State law also requires the Colorado Bureau of Investigation to perform a similar background check. Waller’s bill would eliminate the CBI requirement.

And Republicans are also supporting a bill that protects homeowners from prosecution in the event of using deadly force during an invasion. House Bill 1088, introduced this year by Holbert, would allow business owners, managers and employees to use deadly force against an intruder, free of prosecution.

The so-called “Make My Day Better” law has already failed four times in the past, mostly over concerns that deadly errors are more likely in the workplace. Because businesses can be active places where people come and go, there is a concern that a business owner or employee might confuse a law-abiding citizen for an intruder, resulting in deadly error.

But Holbert believes he has the ability to rally Democrats behind this year’s version. He notes that he was able to persuade seven Democrats to support his concealed-carry bill last year.

“I believe strongly in it,” Holbert said. “Critics look at it as permission, or a license to do bad things, but I don’t look at it that way at all. The life of each law-abiding citizen is just as important or valuable in the workplace as it is at home.”

Peter@coloradostatesman.com