Colorado gun control bills progress; semi-auto ban unlikely

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Posted at 5:50 AM, Apr 19, 2023
and last updated 2023-04-20 00:13:32-04

DENVER (AP) — In a vast hall of Colorado’s Capitol, hundreds sat between columns for a hearing Wednesday on a sweeping bill to ban semi-automatic firearms months after a mass shooting at an LGBTQ+ nightclub in Colorado Springs — the latest in the state’s long history of massacres.

Rep. Elisabeth Epps, the bill’s sponsor, wiped tears from her eyes during her opening remarks as she appealed to her fellow Democrats — who control the state’s legislature and are the bill’s only hurdle — to pass the ban.

“Which school was it when you realized, ‘Babies? We aren’t going to ban (assault weapons) now?’” Epps said. “I’m scared of what it says about us, if, when there are 69 members of my party in the body, we don’t run this bill.”

The Legislature has passed a package of narrower gun control measures that is expected to be signed by the state’s governor — more closely aligning Colorado with the liberal strongholds of California and New York. But the sweeping ban on semi-automatic firearms faces much stiffer odds and illustrates that even Democratic-controlled statehouses don’t have free rein on overhauling laws rooted deep in American culture.

While Democrats hold a 9-4 majority on the committee, some have voiced concerns over the bill’s constitutionality and breadth.

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“I think we’ve discovered the edge and the limit of how progressive this state wants to be,” Rep. Mike Lynch, the Republican House minority leader, said in a press conference outside the hearing.

In a potentially major concession to other Democrats, Epps said the bill will likely be significantly pared back to effectively ban bump stocks — a gun attachment that increases the rate of fire and which is already federally prohibited.

Over 500 people signed up to testify at the proposal’s first hearing — the vast majority in opposition to the ban — and tensions rose at times. Grant Cramer, a freshman at a Denver high school, called out four Democratic committee members by name in his testimony, saying they had blood on their hands before threatening to challenge their elected positions.

“All of Denver high schools are ready to march on the Capitol once more on April 29 to demand that you step down from power,” Cramer said. “We are ready to make sure that you lose your reelection in a landslide vote.”

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He added: “Don’t think for a second that you will get away with this because you are part of the Democratic party.”

On the other side, Austin Hein of the National Association for Gun Rights threatened to sue before the ink dries on any such bill.

Hein argued that none of the gun control bills will do “anything to address the root cause of the mental health, overly medicated children in fatherless homes and gun-free zones that are plaguing our state.”

Particularly the semi-automatic ban, Hein added, which includes a number of pistols and shotguns, “will leave law-abiding citizens defenseless to the alarming rise of violent crime caused by the progressive criminal justice reform.”

Democrats have collectively forced other gun control measures toward the governor’s desk, including strengthening red-flag laws, raising the firearm purchasing age to 21, opening the gun industry up to legal liability and installing a three-day waiting period after buying a gun.

The semi-automatic firearm ban has not received the same urgency.

While deeply Democratic states such as California, New York and Massachusetts have restricted semi-automatic rifles, the proposal in Colorado has revealed divides among Democrats and fomented tension between the urban and rural parts of the state.

Democrats including Speaker of the House Rep. Julie McCluskie and Majority Leader Rep. Monica Duran said they haven’t yet made up their minds on the legislation. McCluskie cited concerns from her more rural constituents. Colorado Gov. Jared Polis, a Democrat, has demurred when asked questions about the ban.

Colorado is a state where Democrats know well that going too far on gun laws can put them in political peril.

A decade ago, Colorado voters ousted two state lawmakers in first-ever recall elections that came in reaction to the Democrats’ support for tougher gun laws in the aftermath of the Aurora theater shooting.

Colorado has suffered some of the nation’s most notorious massacres, including 13 killed in 1999 at Columbine High School, 12 killed in 2012 at an Aurora movie theater, 10 killed in 2021 at a Boulder supermarket and five killed last November at a Colorado Springs gay nightclub.

The tragedies have only increased the chorus of support for gun control. Just last month, after a student shot two administrators in a Denver high school, waves of chanting students and teachers filled Colorado’s Capitol demanding that gun-control laws be passed.

While Democrats control both of Colorado’s chambers, Republican lawmakers have put up a vigorous fight against the other measures, filibustering into the wee hours of the morning as debates spilled into long weekends.

The attempt to stymie what Republicans considered burdensome and unconstitutional policies finally ran aground when McCluskie invoked a rarely used rule — considered the nuclear option — to shut down debate and push the bills to a vote.

Republicans decried the move as silencing their voices and, by extension, the voices of their constituents.


Bedayn is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.