Rocky Mountain Gun Owners walks back lobbyist's racially charged comments during committee hearing

Testimony by a RMGO lobbyist during a committee hearing on gun bills devolved to racially charged comments and a mention of the Holocaust. The gun lobby later walked back those comments.
Kevin Lorusso
Posted at 8:47 PM, Feb 08, 2023
and last updated 2023-02-10 12:00:17-05

DENVER — Gun reform bills are debated by state lawmakers just about every year in the Colorado legislature. This year is no exception.

So far, four gun bills have been introduced, and more are on the way.

On Monday, two of those bills were debated in committee. One would expand immunity from criminal prosecution and civil liability for gun owners who use physical force in their business to protect themselves against unlawful intruders. The second would create a civil penalty for the enforcement or attempted enforcement of federal laws that infringe on the right to bear arms.

During Monday’s debate, a representative from Rocky Mountain Gun Owners (RMGO), Colorado’s largest gun lobby organization, gave public testimony, where he first spoke about gun rights and genocide.

“I cannot fathom why someone would say, ‘You know, the Jews would’ve still died in the Holocaust, so maybe they didn’t need their guns,'" said Kevin Lorusso. "You know what? Maybe they should have taken a couple of Nazis out on the way. Maybe it would’ve been good for them to have the ability to defend themselves. And that’s what this is all about."

After finishing his comments, he was questioned by Rep. Kyle Brown, D-Louisville, about statistics involving gun deaths among children and adolescents in the U.S.

Brown cited a letter published in the New England Journal of Medicine that named firearms as the number one leading cause of death among children and adolescents.

“If you remove Black males in that age group from that, it is not true," Lorusso replied. "That is a symptom of a different issue. The issue that is causing young Black males to be killed in their homes and on their streets is a very different issue. And most of those, I believe the number is 99%, but I'll safely say 98% of those murders are committed with illegally acquired and illegally possessed firearms.”

Those comments have raised criticism from gun reform advocates.

In the hearing, Rep. Scott Bottoms, R-Colorado Springs, and Lorusso went on to claim that motor vehicle crashes were the number one cause of death among children.

RMGO has since walked back those comments. Executive Director Taylor Rhodes said in a statement to Denver7, “Monday, I allowed Kevin Lorusso, our most junior staffer, to testify on behalf of Rocky Mountain Gun Owners on two bills we knew were going to die in committee to get him experience in the public forum. If you have testified on behalf of a large organization, or even on behalf of yourself, this can be a very nerve-wracking exercise. In his testimony, he misspoke when discussing a heated topic surrounding the gun issue. Rocky Mountain Gun Owners will continually support and defend the Second Amendment freedoms of all law-abiding Coloradans.”

The statement went on to say that RMGO will not provide any more interviews or statements on the topic but will continue to fight for gun rights at the Colorado State Capitol.

Jason Goldstick, a statistician and associate professor of emergency medicine at the University of Michigan, was the lead author of the letter that discussed in the committee hearing. He says the data is clear that firearms have overtaken car crashes as the lead cause of death among American youth.

“You can see the firearm-related injuries have increased pretty drastically in the last five years or so, especially in the last two years of data, and a lot of that increase is due to increases in homicides,” he said.

Goldstick used death certificates to determine the leading cause of death for youth between 1999 and 2020. However, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) data from 2021 shows yet another increase in firearm-related deaths among this age group, from 5.6 per 100,000 to 6 per 100,000.

He points out that men in that age range are at higher risk to die from firearms than women, and that older adolescents are dying in higher numbers than younger children.

“If you look at the race breakdown, yes, there are massive health disparities here. Black youth are definitely at higher risk than non-Hispanic white or Hispanic white, or Native American (youth),” Goldstick said.

However, he doesn’t understand why lawmakers are getting hung up on the rankings as a sign of importance.

Goldstick points out that there are public health approaches that do not involve gun control that could have an impact on these deaths. He used motor vehicle crashes as an example, saying a combination of technology, public awareness campaigns and more helped slow the number of deaths.

Goldstick wonders if a similar approach might help curb the number of firearm-related deaths among American youth.

“The public health approach can certainly decrease injury rates, and there's no reason why you can't do the same thing with firearms. There's a lot of ways to do that without doing, without having gun control,” he said.

Both bills failed to make it out of Monday’s committee hearing.

Meanwhile, on Wednesday, state lawmakers in a different committee debated a bill that would give counties the right to ban people from using their firearms in certain unincorporated areas. Current state law forbids counties from passing their own ordinances in the area.

House Bill 23-1165 specifies that county boards can prohibit firearms from being discharged if there are 35 dwellings or more per square mile in an unincorporated area. Police officers and shooting ranges would be exempt.

“You would be able to say in this area, shooting in your backyard isn't safe, just like in a town,” said Rep. Judy Amabile, D-Boulder. “We want them to go to a gun range and do that in a really safe way, or they can still go to the Forest Service. There's still a lot of opportunity to shoot, you just can't do it if you live in a dense subdivision.”

The bill idea was brought to Amabile by residents of St. Mary’s Glacier in Clear Creek County, who testified Wednesday that their neighbors are firing guns in close proximity to their homes.

“People were using large caliber rifles, presumably with a bump stock, on a one-third acre lot, using a pine tree as a back stop,” one resident testified. “It’s simply unsafe. They lack a proper berm. They lack a proper backstop.”

Other neighbors complained about the sound from all of the weapons firing around them.

Amabile says she isn’t aware of anyone dying from people firing weapons on their properties in her district, but believes counties should be able to decide for themselves whether they want to intervene without the state blocking them.

“We don't want to wait until the tragedy happens. We want to get ahead of it and say, ‘Hey, our counties are changing, especially along the Front Range. They're getting more and more dense,'” Amabile said.

Opponents of the bill also spoke at the hearing, saying they should be able to practice their Second Amendment rights on their own properties, and that's why many chose to move to unincorporated portions of the county. Some worried what this would mean for their property values, while others criticized the bill as government overreach.

“It is another example of lawmakers treating good, honest, law-abiding Coloradans like criminals for merely exercising their Second Amendment freedoms,” Rhodes said during the committee testimony.

Despite opposition, HB 23-1165 passed its first committee test Wednesday and will continue through the legislative process.

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