Colorado’s controversial 2013 gun laws could loom large over crowded 2018 governor’s race

RJ Sangosti, The Denver Post Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper, signs three gun control measures, March, 20, 2013. Jane Dougherty, center, who’s sister, Mary Sherlach, was killed at Sandy Hook, holds her hands to her mouth as she and other supporters watch Hickenlooper sign the measures making stricter gun laws in Colorado. The legislation is now coming back into play for the 2018 gubernatorial race.

Colorado’s debate over guns — forged over years of mass shootings and rekindled after the Oct. 1 massacre in Las Vegas — is set to play out during next year’s race for governor.

That’s particularly true among activists on both sides of the debate who during the primaries are poised to magnify even the smallest differences among Democratic and Republican candidates.

Taking center stage in this tug of war: a relitigation of the state’s 2013 gun laws whose passage followed similar attacks in Aurora and Newtown, Conn.

In the four years since Colorado took the twin steps of expanding background checks to private sales and limiting the size of magazines to 15 rounds, there remains a deep divide over beliefs in their effectiveness — with state statistics and one recent study suggesting the efforts have had a limited impact.

Who or what is to blame for their efficacy is another point of contention. As are a number of other gun-related issues, from proposed bans on the “bump stocks” used in the Las Vegas shooting to a failed effort by Congress to outlaw dozens of assault weapons.

Where they stand on guns

The Denver Post sent a survey to candidates running for governor. Here are their answers.

“I don’t want to hear about support for the Second Amendment,” said Tony Fabian, president of the Colorado State Shooting Association. “We want to hear specifics. And one of those specifics we better hear (is) a repeal the 2013 gun control laws.”

Said Shannon Watts, founder of Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America: “What is important to us is that the laws that are in place are upheld.”

The Denver Post conducted interviews with — and a survey of — nine candidates in the 2018 governor’s race. Among the four GOP candidates, there is little variation in how each would approach gun regulation — a homogeneity that makes the field’s split opinion over background checks stand out.

It’s the same story in the similarly large Democratic field, though U.S. Rep. Jared Polis, D-Boulder, is the closest thing to an outlier in either party. How the issue affects his candidacy could reveal the degree to which gun-control groups have gained influence on the left.

Universal background checks divide GOP

Every Democratic candidate said they support the requirement for background checks on all gun purchases in the state. But Republicans are divided over whether the legislature and Gov. John Hickenlooper went too far four years ago in mandating them for private sales.

Robinson, a former investment banker and nephew to Mitt Romney said it helps keep guns “out of the hands of those that can do damage.”

Mitchell, a businessman and former state lawmaker, said that while he had doubts about universal background checks’ ability to stop mass shootings, he still was “generally supportive” of them as long as they are “done in a way that firearm owners can sell their firearms to other law-abiding citizens.”

By contrast, two GOP officeholders in the race — state Treasurer Walker Stapleton and 18th Judicial District Attorney George Brauchler — were against it, with Stapleton promising he would sign a repeal of the new background checks if given the chance as governor.

Said Brauchler: “I don’t think it’s effective.”

In terms of raw numbers, Colorado authorities ran about 20,000 background checks on private sales last year, which state officials said included both deals between individuals and private exchanges at guns shows, the latter of which was required before the 2013 expansion.

The checks prevented about 450 people in 2016 from buying guns during a private exchange, a subset of the roughly 8,700 denials of all attempted purchases in the state.

About 2.2 percent of the more than 20,000 private sales were denied, an amount nearly identical to the rejection rate of those trying to buy weapons through a dealer with a federal firearms license. In all, Colorado rejected about 8,700 sales out of about 389,000 attempts.

Most often it’s for a criminal record. Last year, for both private and dealer sales, that included nearly 1,600 applicants with an assault conviction and another 150 applicants with a history of sexual assault. About 430 people with a restraining order were denied the ability to buy a gun.

Still, a rejection isn’t always valid. Last year, more than half of the 8,704 rejections were appealed. In 2,427 cases — or nearly 28 percent of the time — the decision was reversed, according to the Colorado Bureau of Investigation.

Mark Kelly, the husband of former U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, testified before Colorado lawmakers on a universal background check bill for private gun sales, March, 04, 2013, at the Colorado State Capitol.

Even so, gun-control activists and the field of Democratic candidates said it’s a fair tradeoff.

Universal background checks are “keeping us all safe,” said Cary Kennedy, a former state treasurer and one of the Democrats running for governor.

One recent study, however, has raised questions about its efficacy.

A joint investigation by the Violence Prevention Research Program at the University of California-Davis and the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health found that Colorado did not see the rise in background checks that researchers had expected when the state expanded the checks to private sales.

The findings in the Oct. 6 paper were part of a broader examination of the impact of comprehensive background checks in Delaware, Colorado and Washington. Rates increased noticeably in Delaware but not in Colorado and Washington, and one theory was a lack of compliance and enforcement in the latter two states.

“Many county law enforcement officials in Colorado reportedly stated they would not enforce its CBC law, and some retailers were declining to process background checks for private-party transfers,” wrote the authors.

But the authors acknowledged they did not have information “beyond anecdote about compliance with and enforcement of the law in those states.”

After the Colorado legislature put in place new rules for background checks and the size of magazines, most of the state’s county sheriffs sued to stop them.

“These bills do nothing to make Colorado a safer place to live, to work, to play, to raise a family,” Weld County Sheriff John Cooke said at the time.

Since July 2013, Colorado authorities have filed 57 charges for violations of background-check rules, according to the Colorado District Attorneys Council. There have been nine convictions.

A sliver of difference between Polis, other Dems

The division among Democrats is largely between Polis and the rest of the field, though like the Republican slate, the candidates agree more than they disagree.

One distinction is on the issue of Colorado’s 2013 ban on magazines larger than 15 rounds.

Then-state Sen. Mike Johnston, D-Denver, gives an impassioned speech in March 2013 in favor of a bill to limit the capacity of ammunition magazines to 15 rounds.

Democrats in the statehouse led the push that year to restrict larger magazines in response to the Aurora and Newtown shootings.

Mike Johnston was in the state Senate at the time and voted for the legislation. If elected governor, he said, he would advocate for its implementation on a national level.

Colorado should be a “lighthouse for the rest of the country,” Johnston said of expanded background checks and the magazine-size limits.

Several of his Democratic rivals gave their unequivocal support to the measure, notably Kennedy, Lt. Gov. Donna Lynne and businessman Noel Ginsburg.

Polis said simply that he wouldn’t repeal it.

Opponents of large-capacity magazines said bans on their use could save lives in mass shootings because it would force assailants to reload more often — giving victims precious seconds to escape. Even if criminals still can get them illegally, they argue, taking them out of stores makes it harder.

But critics of the change, including the Colorado sheriffs who fought the law, said enforcement remains a challenge because it’s legal to own and use large magazines purchased before the 15-round limit went into effect.

Colorado authorities have filed charges less than 60 times for violations of the magazine limit. There have been two convictions in the last four years.

The Republican candidates don’t like it, and Brauchler, who prosecuted the Aurora theater shooter, said he wouldn’t consider enforcement a priority in some cases.

District Attorney George Brauchler, left, in court as death penalty defendant James Holmes appears before the judge to be formally sentenced, August 26, 2015.

A violation of the 15-round rule is “a tool I would consider using for bad guys” accused of several charges, said the district attorney. But it’s “not one I would pursue aggressively against the good guys. And by good guys, I mean law-abiding citizens who that’s their only violation.”

A 2015 poll done by Magellan Strategies found the issue split cleanly along party lines, with most Republicans supporting a repeal of 15-round limit and most Democrats opposed. Independents were split almost evenly too, with slight support for repeal of the limit.

Among Democrats, another division is their opinion of the Assault Weapons Ban that U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., introduced in 2013.

The measure would have banned dozens of weapons and other large ammunition-feeding devices, but it failed by a 40-60 Senate vote — with Colorado Democrats Mark Udall and Michael Bennet both in opposition.

Polis was skeptical of the bill, saying it could interfere with recreation and “make it harder for Colorado families to defend themselves.”

Asked whether he would support a similar measure in Colorado, Polis did not provide a yes or no answer. “We shouldn’t ban guns that are popular among hunters and sportsmen, but weapons of war are too dangerous and serve no legitimate sporting purpose,” he wrote.

Ginsburg, Johnston, Kennedy and Lynne all said yes.

Eileen McCarron, of the gun-control group Colorado Ceasefire, said she’s seen a shift among state Democrats on the issue, brought on by the changing demographics of the state and the mass shootings in Aurora and Newtown.

“Those two events were crystallizing for a lot of people in the state,” she said.

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