DENVER – Hundreds of people packed the Capitol on Tuesday for a marathon hearing as the Democrats’ gun bills started moving through the Legislature.
Durango Rep. Mike McLachlan emerged as a key Democratic swing vote, and his amendment to weaken a ban on high-capacity magazines helped the bill pass its first test.
Democrats on the House Judiciary Committee passed two bills, House Bills 1224 and 1229, which ban high-capacity ammunition magazines and require background checks for every gun sale. Both passed on party-line 7-4 votes.
The background check bill has become the easiest piece of the gun-control package for Democrats to pass, and Gov. John Hickenlooper has voiced his support.
The bill requires a background check for any gun sale, even between private parties, with exceptions only for gifts to family members.
But the ban on ammunition magazines of more than 10 rounds proved to be more difficult.
McLachlan and fellow Democrats amended the limit to 15 rounds. In an interview, McLachlan said he would not vote for the bill unless the limit is raised to 15.
“It’s a reasonable number, and I think it’s consistent with protecting the public,” McLachlan said.
Several types of semi-automatic guns are sold with magazines larger than 15 rounds. Those would become illegal under the bill, HB 1224.
The sponsor, Rep. Rhonda Fields, D-Aurora, opposed the change, but she acquiesced to it in order to pass her bill. She asked legislators not to forget massacres at a school in Connecticut, an Army base in Texas, a congressional event in Arizona and a movie theater in her district.
“What all of these events have in common is high-capacity magazine clips,” Fields said.
McLachlan could remain a swing vote on other gun bills. He proclaimed his principles on future bills to the other members of the committee.
“I will never support registration of guns,” he said. “I have severe philosophical problems with banning certain types of weapons.”
The background check bill will not be a “slippery slope” that leads to a government registry of gun owners, McLachlan said.
The panel heard about 10 hours of testimony that was often emotional.
Jane Dougherty, a Colorado woman who lost her sister in the Newtown school massacre in December, was the first witness for the magazine bill.
Her sister, Mary Sherlach, died while running toward the gunman. If he didn’t have large-volume magazines, the victims would have had a better chance, Dougherty said.
“In fact, 11 children managed to escape when the shooter stopped to reload, and a little boy yelled, ‘Run!’” she said.
Supporters of the pro-gun group Rocky Mountain Gun Owners packed the 150-seat room and overflowed into the hallways.
A political refugee led testimony for the opponents against the background-check bill.
Anthony Racz of Castle Rock said his family fled Hungary after the 1956 Soviet invasion. His grandfather, a police official, was arrested when he refused to turn over gun ownership records.
“Many of my countrymen died,” Racz said. “I’m particularly sensitive to registration and incrementally increasing controls.”
Doug Smith, chief operating officer of Magpul, said the high-capacity magazine bill would force his Erie-based company to take its 200 manufacturing jobs out of state. The company makes military equipment, and its customers include foreign militaries.
“If this bill is passed, we would be unable to continue our business here in Colorado,” Smith said.
A ban on high-capacity magazines won’t improve safety and will make it only harder for law-abiding people to defend themselves, Smith said.
The panel heard testimony into the night, even as the country’s attention was divided on two other gun-related stories.
In California, police were concluding a manhunt for a rouge former police officer who went on a killing spree, targeting officers and their families. And in Washington, President Barack Obama was calling for votes on gun-control bills in his State of the Union address.
But the debate is far from over. Both bills face more hearings, and today, House committees tackle two more bills. They would ban concealed weapons on college campuses and require guy buyers to pay for their own background checks.