Gun debate fires off with legislation

The Colorado Statesman

State Democrats this week unveiled their proposals for gun control just two days before National Rifle Association President David Keene made the rounds at the Capitol, expressing his organization’s concerns to legislative leaders and Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper. Even before the proposals were released, Democrats and Republicans were immersed in a skirmish over the issue.

Democrats unveiled their proposals on Tuesday, and a handful of the measures were introduced later in the week. The agenda includes:

• Creating liability for assault weapon manufacturers, sellers, owners and possessors in the event of an accident, or violent crime. Senate President John Morse, D-Colorado Springs, is expected to sponsor the measure;

• House Bill 1224, sponsored by Rep. Rhonda Fields, D-Aurora, which would ban high-capacity ammunition magazines capable of accepting more than 10 rounds;

• House Bill 1229, sponsored by Fields and Rep. Beth McCann, D-Denver, which would require a universal background check that aims to close a loophole allowing private sales without a check. The measure would also require the real-time transfer of mental health data between state and federal agencies;

• House Bill 1226, sponsored by Rep. Claire Levy, D-Boulder, which would prohibit concealed-carry on college campuses;

• House Bill 1228, sponsored by Rep. Lois Court, D-Denver, which would require an estimated $10 fee for background checks when purchasing firearms;

• Strengthening protections that prohibit those convicted of domestic violence from possessing a firearm. Sen. Evie Hudak, D-Westminster, is expected to sponsor the legislation;

• Requiring in-person training in order to obtain a concealed carry permit. Sen. Lois Tochtrop, D-Thornton, is expected to sponsor the measure; and

• Mandating that mental health professionals notify the Colorado Bureau of Investigation if they conclude that a person poses a danger. CBI would input the data into the background check system so that the person could not purchase a gun. McCann is expected to sponsor the legislation.

At a news conference unveiling the proposals, lawmakers were flanked by the families of victims from the July Aurora movie theater shooting that claimed the lives of 12 and injured another 58. Victims of other gun violence incidents — including the recent Sandy Hook Elementary School and 1999 Columbine High School massacres — also joined the news conference. The families held photos of their dead kin.

“Their loved ones went out to see a movie on a warm July night in Aurora, Colo. Their loved ones never came home,” detailed House Speaker Mark Ferrandino, D-Denver.

“It is for you that we are here today. It is for you that we say, ‘Enough to the gun violence that is stealing your children from us.’ We should all feel safe when we go to a movie, or to a school,” continued Ferrandino.

Jessica Watts agreed that she does not feel safe. She shared her remarkable connection to gun violence, including losing a cousin, Navy veteran Jonathan Blunk, to the Aurora shooting; having a husband who was witness to the Columbine massacre; and having previously babysat for Emily Keyes, who was shot dead in 2006 at Platte Canyon High School in Bailey.

“No one should ever have to go through getting a phone call like we have with these horrific tragedies,” said an emotional Watts. “Gun violence is destroying our families. We need to do something to make sure the criminals, dangerous people and the seriously mentally ill do not have access to guns …”

Jane Dougherty — a Coloradan who lost her sister, Mary Sherlach, to the Sandy Hook shooting in Newtown, Conn. — implored lawmakers to stand up for gun control.

“Enough!” she shouted to her audience at the news conference. “As our elected representatives, it is your job to keep your constituents safe … Be brave. Be brave like my sister.”

President of NRA lobbies in Colorado

Adding to the dramatic significance of the debate was a visit on Thursday by NRA President Keene. He had requested a meeting with Hickenlooper and legislative leaders even before Democrats unveiled their proposals.

David Keene, NRA President

The Statesman met with Keene for a one-on-one interview prior to his meetings. The NRA president and conservative leader blasted lawmakers for introducing gun control measures that he believes serves only as “feel good” legislation.

“These kind of things are sort of what I call feel good bills. They won’t prevent a crime, or a shooting, but they make the sponsor feel like he’s really doing something,” opined Keene. “That doesn’t impress me very much.”

He said he traveled to Colorado to urge the governor and lawmakers to take a measured approach to gun control, including focusing on mental health issues. Keene said he was impressed by the practical approach Colorado took to gun control following the Columbine shooting.

“In the past, the way the state has responded to the tragedies that took place here has, we think, been very reasonable, and the governor has been very good on these kind of things,” remarked Keene. “So, I wanted to come out and talk to him and talk to others that are involved.”

He does not believe, however, that the recent high-profile shootings necessarily led to the national debate on gun control. Keene feels that the conversation was going to happen regardless, especially with the re-election of Democratic President Barack Obama.

“We believed that if the president were re-elected, that he and his friends would find something to pivot on in order to go after Second Amendment rights,” commented Keene. “And Newtown provided what they had hoped was a political and public game changer that would allow them to get the upper hand in the discussion.”

The NRA would rather see an effort to increase security at schools and legislation that focuses on mental health issues.

“Virtually every one of these mass shootings has been perpetrated not by a criminal, but by somebody who is severely mentally ill,” said Keene. “And the incidents of these shootings has increased as a result of the collapse of the mental health care system.”

Despite criticism, Keene does not believe that the NRA needs a new public relations strategy. Critics have said that the NRA’s own members are divided. But Keene points out that only the NRA has access to its membership lists. He said his organization’s internal polling shows that there is consistent agreement amongst its members.

He also rejects the claim that a growing number of Americans desire increased gun control. Keene said the only thing that has changed is that the NRA is seeing a more diverse group of gun enthusiasts, including women, hunters, sportsmen and students who are joining shooting teams.

“The importance of firearms is part of the DNA of America,” opined Keene. “That’s how we came to be what we are. That’s why it’s in the constitution. Because, particularly at that time, they knew that an unarmed country was at the mercy of its enemies — internal and external.”

But there may be a divide surrounding the gun community’s lobbying efforts. In Colorado, Rocky Mountain Gun Owners has found itself at odds with the NRA. Dudley Brown, executive director of RMGO, has accused the NRA of being too liberal. He did not back down from that assumption when informed that Keene would be meeting with Hickenlooper.

“If they met with Barack Obama, it would not surprise me that they would meet with the governor,” remarked Brown.

Following Hickenlooper’s meeting with Keene, the governor said: “We appreciate David Keene’s willingness to come out to see firsthand what we’re considering and talking about in Colorado. While we might not agree on a number of things, there will certainly be places we can find common ground.”

The governor has signaled his support for universal background checks and mental health efforts, but he has been less forthcoming with some of the more controversial proposals. He was not present when his fellow Democrats unveiled their proposals for gun control.

Instead, his spokesman, Eric Brown, offered a statement: “The governor supports universal background checks and is open to a discussion about magazine limits and other ideas designed to keep guns out of the hands of dangerous people. We intend to carefully study the liability legislation proposed by Sen. Morse and appreciate his effort to put a creative idea on the table. Our office will continue to work with the General Assembly to balance Second Amendment rights with calls for tighter gun laws, while also making sure we strengthen the state’s mental health services and support system.”

Republicans filibuster press conference?

Democrats acknowledge that the fight in the legislature is going to be tough. Republicans are mounting an effort to defeat the proposals; and despite controlling both chambers, Democrats may have a problem locking down their own caucus.

In a sign of the contention that may be coming, Capitol insiders say they observed an attempt by Republicans on Tuesday to filibuster the press conference organized by Democrats.

As the 10 a.m. hour approached when House Democrats were ready to wrap up floor proceedings and head to the news conference, a seemingly non-controversial resolution honoring the importance of the Emancipation Proclamation turned into a bit of a dustup.

One would not think that a resolution honoring the document that led to the end of slavery in America would result in any controversy. But when Rep. Frank McNulty, R-Highlands Ranch, offered a last-minute amendment to add the full text of the proclamation to the resolution and have it read aloud — thus delaying its passage — Democrats became alarmed.

For one thing, Ferrandino pointed out that House rules prohibit amendments that are more than one page long to be offered within 24 hours. But Democrats control the calendar this year with a 37-28 majority, and they were able to delay action on the resolution to scramble to the news conference. On Thursday, they took up the resolution again, and it passed unanimously on a voice vote.

Rep. Jovan Melton, D-Aurora, believes Republicans attempted to hijack the Emancipation Proclamation resolution in order to delay the news conference and serve their interests. As a black lawmaker, he said he was offended by the perceived strategy.

“That’s the way I felt,” Melton shared with The Colorado Statesman. “To have the entire Emancipation Proclamation read at length — granted it’s only a page and a half — but still, it’s a mockery. It’s mocking the historical document.”

For many Democrats, the amendment recalled memories from last year when McNulty — in his role at the time as House speaker — delayed a vote on same-sex civil unions in the waning hours of the legislative session, thereby killing the measure.

But McNulty told The Statesman that there was no strategy. He acknowledged that he was in the wrong to have offered the amendment without more than 24 hours notice, but he pointed out that the move would be silly, considering Democrats control the calendar.

“They have the ability to control the calendar and lay the resolution over. They’re in control of everything that happens,” he explained. “When they have a press conference scheduled, they can lay the resolution over and go to the press conference. To blame the minority party in the Statehouse seems ridiculous to me.”

Ferrandino said he would take his predecessor’s word this time around: “I’ll let others chime in on what the intent of it was. I take Rep. McNulty at word that he was trying to make the resolution better,” he said.

Concerns with gun laws

Despite the growing drama, Democrats remain focused on their agenda. One concern is with the state’s backlogged background check system.

Court hopes to address the issue with her bill that would require a fee on background checks. She says the funding could be used to ease the backlog.

Federal law says the checks should take no longer than three business days, but there have been instances in Colorado where the checks have taken more than a week. Much of it has to do with a spike in gun sales since the recent horrific shootings. Keene says that before Colorado starts adding more people into the system with a universal law, the state should address the jammed system.

“To extend it and put millions of more records into it is just going to break it down and make it less useful than it even is today,” remarked Keene.

The NRA and RMGO have also expressed concerns with Morse’s proposal to create liability for assault weapon incidents. Keene pointed out that federal law prohibits gun makers from being sued for crimes committed with weapons they produce.

Morse and Keene did not actually discuss the measure when they met on Thursday. But Morse acknowledged that there are legal issues he needs to address.

“In 1986, Colorado held manufacturers and sellers immune, and then in 2005, the feds did the same thing, and I can undo the Colorado one in a bill; the federal one is much more problematic,” explained Morse. “But part of the object here is to highlight that.”

Sen. Greg Brophy, R-Wray, also has concerns with Morse’s bill. Brophy — who owns AR-15 assault rifles — believes the measure is a backdoor attempt at banning assault weapons in Colorado. He points out that no manufacturer would want to sell weapons that could result in a costly lawsuit.

“It bans legal sales of guns in Colorado,” attested Brophy. “It’s extreme. It’s the most extreme anti-gun measure that we’ve seen.”

Fields is also receiving a fair share of the criticism after taking the lead for House Democrats on gun control. The issue is personal for her, having lost her son, Javad Marshall-Fields, in 2005 after he was murdered along with his fiancée, Vivian Wolfe, before Marshall-Fields could testify against a man accused of murdering his friend.

As the sponsor of measures that would ban high-capacity ammunition magazines and require universal background checks, Fields has been forced to defend her proposals.

Both the NRA and RMGO are concerned that a universal background check would be unproductive because it would mostly deal with private firearm sales, which is primarily between family members and friends. It is unlikely that those people would bother to go through the trouble of a background check.

As for banning high-capacity ammunition magazines, critics point out that it costs about $3 to make such an ammunition holder at home.

But Fields remains committed to her proposals, offering an emotional promise to victims: “I will not rest; I will not rest until this is done,” she declared. “Because I’m here to tell you now that enough is enough.”

Levy is also likely to see a fight over her bill banning concealed-carry on college campuses. Students for Concealed Carry will surely point to recent court challenges. The Colorado Supreme Court ruled that the University of Colorado Board of Regents overstepped its authority in blocking students from carrying licensed concealed weapons.

“For years, colleges have cultivated a deadly illusion that a gun-free policy makes us safer,” said David Burnett, spokesman for Students for Concealed Carry. “The mass shootings we’ve seen in recent years only prove killers don’t play by the rules.

“The current rules guarantee criminals a free shot,” he continued. “Allowing licensed concealed carry would give potential attackers pause and ultimately give innocent victims a fighting chance.”

Brown added that RMGO is ready for a political fight if lawmakers pass strict gun control.

His organization on Feb. 27 will be holding a drawing for a free Glock handgun. The contest is part of an effort to encourage people to sign a petition against gun control in Colorado.

“We don’t really care what happens in this building; how many Gucci-loafer lobbyists come up and talk to politicians,” he exclaimed. “We’re going to go in their districts and tell gun owners this is what politicians are doing to your Second Amendment rights.”

Peter@coloradostatesman.com