Lawmakers rifle through gun bills in Capitol shootout

The Colorado Statesman

The legislature shot off to a quick and divisive start this year when Democrats pushed a package of gun control legislation that is still being discussed by Republicans as a means to regain control.

It all started last July — six months before the session started — when a lone gunman casually strolled into an Aurora movie theater and opened fire, massacring 12 and injuring another 58. Then in December, just weeks before the session began, lawmakers were reminded of the potential for gun violence when 20 children and six adults were slaughtered at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn.

By the time the session kicked off in January, Democrats came with legislation blazing. Rep. Rhonda Fields, D-Aurora, who lost her own son to gun violence in 2005, led the charge during a session in which many political observers have suggested that she found her voice.

“We can no longer walk around in our society with these blinders on as if nothing is happening,” Fields said shortly after the House approved three pieces of gun control legislation Feb. 18.

Her high-profile fight made her vulnerable to attacks. The issue was polarizing, resulting in thousands of gun rights supporters making their way to the Capitol throughout the debate to testify against the bills. They drove around the building in circles, honking air horns and waving Gadsden flags. Their cries of disapproval could be heard ringing throughout the legislature.

Despite the uproar, Democrats passed legislation that prohibits high-capacity ammunition magazines of more than 15 rounds, requires universal background checks and fees, mandates that domestic violence offenders surrender their firearms, and requires in-person training for a concealed-carry permit.

At one point, Fields, who is black, faced personal attacks. She received a series of racially and sexually offensive e-mails. The suspect is 42-year-old Colorado Springs resident Franklin Sain. A court hearing is currently underway. The threats were so harassing that Fields sought a temporary protection order against Sain.

Police said Sain sent Fields a letter that read: “I keep my 30 Round Magazines There Will Be Blood! I’m Coming For You!”

Sain and his attorney deny that the letter came from him.

Fields was so alarmed that she has installed surveillance cameras and new locks at her home. Aurora police watch over the house, and state troopers keep an eye on her at work.

Fields wasn’t the only lawmaker to receive threats during the session. Sen. Andy Kerr, D-Lakewood, was also threatened. He received a harassing voice mail on his cell phone on March 4. Police identified the suspect as 59-year-old David Cassidy of Denver.

“You and the rest of the communist Democrats down there are gonna regret what you’re doing,” Kerr recalled the message. “Either by ballots or by bullets, we are going to get you out of office.”

Explosive debate

The majority of gun rights supporters conducted a cordial debate and have admonished the harassing comments. But it still highlights the electrifying nature of the conversation.

Two state lawmakers are facing potential recall elections because of their gun control votes. Senate President John Morse, D-Colorado Springs, and Sen. Angela Giron, D-Pueblo, are awaiting word from the secretary of state’s office on whether signatures turned in by proponents will be validated for an election.

Other Democratic lawmakers were threatened with recall as well, including Sen. Evie Hudak of Westminster and Rep. Mike McLachlan of Durango and Fields. But those efforts did not gain momentum.

Morse is likely going to face a recall election as proponents submitted more than double the signatures needed. He says he’s not scared, but that didn’t stop him for clarifying why he so passionately supported gun control as Senate president this year.

“It’s important that we not lose sight of why we are at this juncture,” Morse explained to reporters on June 3.

“Less than 11 months ago, right here in Colorado, 70 people were shot in a movie theater and 12 of them died,” he continued. “One of those victims was celebrating their birthday and tweeted before she went to the movie that, ‘This was going to be the best birthday ever.’

“Then in December the unthinkable happened and we had 26 people gunned down in a school, including 20 children that were shot in the face. Their little bodies were carried out on stretchers with sheets over their Power Ranger T-shirts,” Morse added.

“There are those among us that say even in light of these instances we should do nothing. We should just sit back and let this keep happening,” he remarked. “But how could I, as a legislator, possibly agree with that approach?”

Morse ran his own piece of legislation that would have held manufacturers and sellers of assault weapons liable for crimes committed with guns they produced or sold. But he killed the bill when questions over the legality of the measure surfaced.

The assault weapons bill wasn’t the only gun control bill to fail this year. Sen. Rollie Heath, D-Boulder, killed his measure, which would have prohibited concealed-carry on college campuses, after he realized he did not have the votes to pass it.

Gun rights supporters feel that Democrats ignored them. They point out that testimony was cut short and that many were never allowed to speak during public hearings.

Democrats say it was simply a matter of scheduling, given the fact that hundreds showed up to testify. Gun rights advocates say Democrats should never have scheduled such controversial hearings on the same day. There were days at the Capitol when at least two gun bills were debated at the same time in separate hearings and committee rooms.

Republicans led the opposition, using the controversy to pave the way for contentious political races in 2014. Sen. Greg Brophy, R-Wray, who is considering a run for governor, believes Re-publicans will regain the majority as a result of “over-reaching” by Democrats.

“The real solution here is at the ballot box in 2014. I think the Democrats will learn in 2014 what they learned in 1994, and hopefully it will be a reason that they will take to heart,” he said in March after Gov. John Hickenlooper, a Democrat, signed gun control bills.

At the March 20 signing, Hickenlooper defended his support. He signed the bills just hours after learning that his Department of Corrections chief, Tom Clements, was gunned down at his home in Monument.

“An incident like this in some ways — whether it’s an act of retaliation, or something… — it is also an act of intimidation,” remarked Hickenlooper. “And my gut feeling… is to go forward with our work. It’s the kind of thing Tom would have understood.”

Democrats were also attacked for eyebrow-raising comments during the debate. The two who made the spotlight were Hudak and Rep. Joe Salazar of Thornton.

Salazar found himself in the hot seat after commenting that women might feel like they’re going to be raped when they’re not in any danger, which could result in accidental shootings.

Hudak suggested 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 college campus, despite having a concealed-carry permit.

Republican women used the comments to create their own version of a “war on women,” made popular by Democrats during the 2012 presidential election.
Rep. Lori Saine, R-Dacono, suggested that women should at least have the option of defending themselves with high-capacity weapons.

“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… Taking guns out and confiscating weapons isn’t going to make anyone safer, including children,” Saine said.

Aftermath of gun control

Gun rights supporters say the fight is far from over. Beyond the ballot box, they are taking immediate steps to address the legislation.

Fifty-four of the state’s 64 county sheriffs filed a federal lawsuit on May 17 against the bills that created the limitation on magazines, and imposed a fee for background checks related to firearms purchases. The libertarian-leaning Independence Institute is heading the lawsuit.

“These bills do nothing to make Colorado a safer place to live, to work, to play, to raise a family,” said Weld County Sheriff John Cooke, who was an outspoken critic of the laws. “It should never have even gotten to this point in the first place.”

Colorado voters in 2014 may also be asked to amend the state constitution to establish a right to purchase and possess high-capacity ammunition magazines.

Meanwhile, Erie-based Magpul Industries Corp., the makers of high-capacity ammunition magazines, has vowed to leave the state as a result of the bills. The company is in the process of relocating. They said they would donate the sale of some products to the lawsuit filed by the sheriffs.

“We remain dedicated to the legal and political struggles that can and will make a difference in defending or restoring individual liberties in Colorado and across the nation, despite the fact that our ongoing relocation efforts are demanding a significant portion of our attention,” Magpul said in a statement on June 4.

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

The issue became one of national importance to Democrats, especially with the presence of Mayors Against Illegal Guns, a gun control group founded by New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg.

Vice President Joe Biden even entered the fray, calling Colorado lawmakers at one point to urge their support. Gun control became a centerpiece policy issue for President Barack Obama and Democrats this year.

“The Democrats are taking their marching orders from extreme liberal New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg and are ignoring the people who voted for them,” Senate Minority Leader Bill Cadman, R-Colorado Springs, said in the aftermath. “This is a sad day for our state and could be a very sad day for the constitution.”


See the June 21 print edition for a full listing of all the legislative enactments from the 2013 session.