Colorado lawmakers unveil series of bills to add more regulations around purchasing, possession of firearms

colorado capitol
Posted at 1:20 PM, Feb 23, 2023
and last updated 2023-04-28 14:13:05-04

DENVER — Democratic lawmakers have unveiled a series of bills that will add more regulations around the purchase and possession of firearms in Colorado.

On Thursday, House and Senate Democrats hosted a press conference announcing four bills. They mark the biggest slate of gun reforms in the state since a package of gun bills passed in 2021 in the wake of the Boulder King Soopers mass shooting.

That year, legislators passed a law to expand background checks for gun transfers, closing the Charleston loophole, a second law to create the Office of Gun Violence Prevention and a law to allow local governments to come up with stricter gun ordinances than the state.

Waiting periods to purchase a firearm

This year, the first bill aims to add a longer waiting period between the time someone buys a gun and is able to pick it up.

"Today, we are making history," said Sen. Steve Fenberg, D-Boulder.

Currently, Colorado does not have any waiting period for gun purchases. The waiting period depends on the time it takes for the Colorado Bureau of Investigation to complete a background check. After a dealer submits a buyer’s form to CBI, the background check takes, on average, 20 minutes, according to the Colorado Legal Defense Group.

House Bill 23-1219 stipulates that the seller must wait three days after the initiation of a required background check on the person purchasing the gun or when the purchase is approved following any background check, whichever is later.

Sellers who fail to comply will face a civil infraction punishable by a $500 fine the first time and a $500 to $5,000 fine for subsequent offenses.

The bill is sponsored by 27 Democratic members of the House and eight Democratic members of the Senate.

It cites a 2017 study that was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in its justification for the legislation, saying mandatory waiting periods resulted in a 7% to 11% reduction in suicides by firearm and a 17% reduction in homicides by firearm.

The legislation would not apply to the sale of an antique firearm or a relic. It would also not apply to the sale of a firearm by someone in the Armed Forces who will be deployed outside of the United States within the next 30 days to an immediate family member or to a firearm transfer for which a background check is not required.

The bill also stipulates that local governments can pass ordinances that would make the waiting period longer than the one described in the bill.

In 2021, state legislators passed a law to allow local preemption on firearms laws, meaning cities and counties are allowed to pass more restrictive measures than the state but not less restrictive ones.

Four Colorado municipalities set to vote on stricter gun ordinances in the wake of mass shootings

Since then, cities like Boulder, Lafayette, Superior and Louisville have passed their own set of ordinances banning assault weapons, for instance.

However, those ordinances are being challenged in court by Colorado’s largest gun lobby organization, Rocky Mountain Gun Owners. They were temporarily blocked last summer. That legislation is still pending in court.

If passed, Colorado would be the 10th state to add a waiting period to the purchase of firearms, according to the Giffords Center. It would go into effect on October 1.

Other states include Washington, California, Minnesota, Hawaii, Illinois, Rhode Island, New Jersey, Maryland, Florida and Washington DC.

End liability protections for the gun industry

A second bill would give those affected by gun violence the right to sue manufacturers.

Current state law limits product liability actions against manufacturers of guns, only allowing them to be sued in instances where there is a defect in the design of the firearm or ammunition.

In 2005, the federal government passed the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act, which offers broad immunity for those in the gun industry. Thirty-three states, including Colorado, have also passed their own laws offering certain protections, according to the Giffords Center.

Colorado is also one of three states that requires those suing the gun industry to pay the defendant's legal fees. Since 2021, however, four states have expanded the rights of victims and their families to sue the gun industry.

"Only three states in the country have this punitive language that stops gun violence survivors from having their day in court, and so, we are wanting to remove that language," said Sen. Sonya Jaquez Lewis, D-Longmont.

Senate Bill 23-168, dubbed the Gun Violence Victims’ Access to Justice and Firearms Industry Accountability Act, would repeal that limitation and require manufacturers, distributors, importers, marketers, wholesalers or retail sellers of firearms to establish and implement a standard of responsible conduct for themselves.

The liability protections would apply not only to those who make and sell the guns, but to those who make or sell the ammunition, gun components like magazines, gun modification manufacturers and more.

A person who is injured physically or emotionally, or whose loved one dies from a violation of that firearm industry code of conduct, would be able to sue the industry members for their role in the shooting.

The bill also allows the Colorado attorney general to sue the gun industry for any violations within five years of the incident.

The legislation calls on the firearm industry to prevent the sale or distribution of guns to straw purchasers, those who are not legally entitled to own a gun or those who pose a substantial risk of using the firearm to harm themselves or others.

Those who successfully sue the industry in civil court would be entitled to monetary relief, though the bill does not specify how much that could be, nor does it place any caps on it.

The bill is cosponsored by three Democratic senators and eight members of the House. If passed, the law would take effect on Oct. 1.

Age limits on gun purchases

A third bill would set age limits on younger Coloradans who are trying to purchase firearms. Those 21 and under would be prohibited from buying any firearms.

Colorado does not currently have specific age restrictions on gun purchases, instead relying on federal laws. Federal law stipulates that someone must be 18 years old to purchase a rifle or a long gun, and 21 to buy a handgun.

Senate Bill 23-169 does add exemptions for those who are 18 and have a hunting license, or if they own or use a gun under the direct supervision of an immediate family member who is at least 25 years old. Those in the Armed Forces and police officers would also be exempt.

It also has a carve out for firearm transfers if the gun is a gift to an immediate family member who is 18 or older.

Those who possess a firearm illegally under the bill would face a class 2 misdemeanor for the first offense and a class 5 felony for any subsequent offenses. The penalties would be similar for those who supply the gun.

Expanding the red flag law

The fourth bill would expand the state’s Extreme Risk Protection Order law that was passed in 2019.

'Let's start saving some lives': Colorado governor signs 'red flag' gun, mental health measure

The so-called red flag law allows family members and law enforcement to petition a judge to temporarily remove the firearms of those who are considered to pose a danger to themselves or others. Senate Bill 23-170 would add mental health professionals, medical providers, educators and district attorneys to the list of people who would be able to petition a judge to temporarily remove someone's guns.

Sen. Tom Sullivan, D-Aurora, who's son, Alex, was killed in the Aurora theater massacre in 2012, was a co-sponsor of the 2019 version of the red flag law. He says that legislation twould not have saved his son's life if it was in place back then. This time, though, with this version of the bill, he has more confidence.

"If this 2023 version had been in effect prior to the tragedy of July 20, 2012, we could have had a chance to change the most horrific night in Colorado history," Sullivan said.

In his annual State of the State address, Gov. Jared Polis spoke in support of updates to the law.

In the wake of the Club Q shooting, calls have grown from gun reform advocates to strengthen and broaden the law. However, SB 23-170 does not require law enforcement to enforce or proactively pursue red flag gun removals, as some have called for in the wake of the Club Q tragedy.

Sullivan says he's open to a discussion regarding red flag removals, and something could come down in the form of legislation in the future.

Along with expanding the list of people who will be able to apply for an ERPO order, the bill also offers some liability protections to those professionals so that they cannot be fired by their employer for reporting a person they have concerns with.

The bill also expands the education component to the red flag law to let people know who can apply, how they can apply and their rights under the law. It allows grant funding to come into play for that education.

Fenberg admits these bills will not single-handedly solve the gun violence the state is facing. However, he says he hopes between these bills and laws passed in previous years, the state will start to curb gun deaths.

"There's not a policy we can pass that will end gun violence forever. It is a matter of policies that are stacked up upon each other," Fenberg said.

Criticism and questions

Even before the bills were formally introduced Thursday, both Republicans and the gun lobby began criticizing the legislation.

Later Thursday, House Minority Leader Mike Lynch, R-Wellington, decried what he called an effort to "infringe on Coloradans’ inalienable right to live their lives without needless government intrusion." He said Republicans are also concerned about gun violence.

In a statement, Lynch said both Democrats and Republicans have to find solutions "without betraying our oaths."

"That's what we struggle with the most with all this legislation is, you know, how to show me tangibly how this fixes problems. Me and my caucus are not for gun violence by any stretch of the imagination, and if we feel that this was a solution, we would be in support of it," he told Denver7.

In an interview with Denver7, Lynch questioned the timing and need for the bills, worrying that the debate on these bills will slow down other important work in the legislature, including the economy and crime.

He went on the speak about the unintended effects these bills might have on rural communities, including 4H educational events where students use firearms in shooting events. It's one of the exceptions he says he will be trying to include in legislation.

"We must care about addressing the issue of gun crimes while also recognizing the utmost importance of protecting and honoring the liberties outlined in our founding documents," Lynch wrote. "As Minority Leader, I pledge to work towards finding solutions without compromising Coloradans’ constitutional rights.”

After the Thursday press conference, Taylor Rhodes, executive director of Rocky Mountain Gun Owners, told Denver7 he knew gun reform bills were coming and they're ready to fight against them.

"We have lawsuits drafted, and we will sue," he said.

Rhodes criticized the bills for going too far against lawful gun owners and purchasers, particularly when it comes to the expansion of the red flag law.

"We knew that they wanted more, right. We knew that they didn't feel like they had the political capital to spend at that point, you know. Now they're going a step forward," he said. "Are police going to be kicking down doors to confiscate firearms? I mean, that's the point that we're getting to here in Colorado."

He also criticized the study that supports waiting periods, and said courts in other states have already struck down similar legislation, along with legislation regarding the minimum age requirements on guns.

"They're essentially instructing their caucus to pass bills that are unconstitutional blatantly. This is something that we've been saying for years," he said.

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