DENVER — A bill that would prohibit people from open-carrying firearms within a close proximity of polling places passed its first committee test Monday.
House Bill 22-1086, otherwise known as the Vote Without Fear Act, would ban open carry of firearms within 100 feet of polling places, drop-off ballot boxes and vote counting centers. The bill does offer some exceptions for police officers acting within the scope of their authority, as well as private property owners who live within 100 feet of these locations.
“We want to reinforce the notion of how sacred it is to be able to vote, how important it is that people feel safe in doing that,” said Rep. Jennifer Bacon, D-Denver, one of the bill’s co-sponsors. “Sometimes there hasn't been clarity around where and when you can carry firearms, and that's something that we wanted to do here.”
Bacon insists that this is not an anti-gun bill since it is not banning the sale, use or ownership of guns. Instead, she says this bill is about understanding that there are some areas that need to be free from potential harm and intimidation.
In 2020, there was an incident outside of an Arapahoe County polling location where two men showed up the day before the election, one of whom was open carrying a firearm. Arapahoe County Clerk and Recorder Joan Lopez says the men set up a camera near the ballot box and stood in front of the building for a time, recording people as they dropped off their ballots.
“It was very odd. They proceeded to move to the front of the building on each side," Lopez said. "So when voters went inside to vote, they were passing them, one open carrying and both cameras filming them going into the building."
Lopez was inside the building at the time and says she heard from election judges who were worried about the incident. Law enforcement officers responded and spoke with the men. However, the men were not breaking any electioneering or campaign laws.
“The county attorney and the police, they could not do nothing to stop this person from what he was doing,” Lopez said.
Bacon says instances like this reinforce the need for a bill to prohibit firearms within a certain distance. It should be noted that the bill does not prohibit the concealed carry of guns around these areas.
“Unfortunately, from what we've seen from behavior from folks here in our own state, we are really looking at this as a safety bill," Bacon said. "We are really looking at this as a voter protection bill."
However, others like Rep. Patrick Neville, R-Castle Rock, disagree with the premise of the bill and say it could have an opposite effect.
Neville, who was a survivor of the Columbine High School shooting, says he and many others feel uncomfortable in gun-free zones, and that he worries this bill creates more soft targets.
“I think what's going to really happen here is this instead is going to make guys like me fearful," he said. "That might be what they're attempting to do is to suppress conservatives from actually turning out to vote."
Instead, Neville says if lawmakers want to try to strengthen anti-voter harassment laws in the state, he would be open to working on that.
The bill passed its first committee hearing on Monday, with votes split along party lines. It will continue through the legislative process. If passed, it would go into effect immediately. Anyone open carrying a firearm could face a $1,000 fine and up to 364 days in jail.
In the meantime, Lopez says county commissioners have already taken steps to ban open carry in their buildings.