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As session hits final days, Democrats push forward with gun bills

Nearly a dozen gun bills remain active, but opposition is stiff
Handguns are displayed on a vendor’s table at an annual gun show in Albany, N.Y. (Associated Press file)

Democrats at the statehouse are continuing to push forward with an ambitious slate of tougher gun policies in the final days of the legislative session, including a proposed statewide ban on the sale of “assault weapons.”

The bills must pass by May 8 when the Legislature adjourns, leaving the prospect that some could fail, not through an up-or-down vote, but just because they run out of time.

Gone are the days when gun debates under the gold dome overwhelmed and effectively shut down the building. Instead, this year's discussion is unfolding more like it does on other contentious policy issues.

Democrats now have a near supermajority in the Colorado Legislature, and Second Amendment advocates in recent years have taken their fight largely outside of the building, instead looking to the courts to block laws once they pass.

“The national landscape has changed. The Democratic Party has changed,” said Democratic Senate President Fenberg reflecting on his caucus’ growing comfort with voting on gun policies.

Fenberg said in many ways Sen. Tom Sullivan of Centennial, who got into politics to pass stricter gun laws after his son Alex was killed in the Aurora theater shooting, has played a big role in normalizing the topic in the Legislature.

The assault weapons ban is the most high profile of this year’s bills, and the one with the most power to divide Democrats. It cleared the House with eight Democrats in opposition. House Majority Leader Monica Duran said she was still making lists of pros and cons the night before the final vote.

“It was probably one of the hardest votes I've ever taken,” she said. “Being a gun owner, I'm really, really supportive of our Second Amendment as many of us in here are.”

But Duran ended up voting yes, putting aside, she said, her desire to pass her firearms to her children.

“Representing 90,000 people, (I had) to think about all who are impacted and not to be selfish and just think about what I want,” she said.

The assault weapons ban is awaiting a hearing in the Senate State Veterans and Military Affairs Committee, where Sullivan is the swing vote. He backs the policy nationally, but he's long been skeptical of the effectiveness of trying to enforce such a ban at the state level.

Democratic state Sen. Tom Sullivan at the podium, with Senate President David Fenberg, right, after advocating for gun control measures, March 10, 2023. (Hart Van Denburg/CPR News file)

“I don't think we should fault him for being brave enough to ask questions and poke holes in policy because he is someone who thinks about these policies more than literally anybody else in this building,” said President Fenberg.

While the days of overwhelming Second Amendment protests appear to be over, the assault weapons ban, along with some of the other Democratic proposals this session, have galvanized opponents.

“The first day of session I would've told you, we will be down there for the important votes, otherwise we'll be on the road raising money for lawsuits,” Taylor Rhodes, the head of Rocky Mountain Gun Owners, recently told CPR.

But instead, the group’s lobbyist has been at the Capitol daily, and logged at least 5,000 calls to the governor’s office, “which was not a part of our initial plan,” Rhodes said. “We have amped up our pressure.”

Other bills this year are lower profile, but still heavily opposed by Second Amendment advocates.

Among the other measures introduced by Democrats are bills to:

  • Require gun owners to have liability insurance.
  • Increase the training requirements for concealed carry permit holders.
  • Require guns left in cars be kept in locked storage containers.
  • Require licensed firearms dealers to get a state permit.
  • Create a new merchant code credit card companies must use for guns and ammunition purchases.
  • Get the CBI more involved in investigating unlawful gun purchasers.
  • Ban guns in the state Capitol and at polling places.

Democratic Rep. Meg Froelich of Denver is sponsoring a number of those bills and said her big focus this session is on improving implementation and enforcement of the existing laws Democrats have passed in recent sessions.

“I feel like we’ve done a lot of good work, whether it's a three-day waiting period, or safe storage, or 21 (to purchase a firearm), or magazine limits, or any of the things that we've checked off our list, which I think can have real effects in the community, but we need implementation at the local level,” Froelich said.

Majority leader Duran is also sponsoring a bill that would ask voters in November to impose an excise tax on firearms and ammunition purchases. The money would go toward mental health services and to support victims of domestic violence and other violent crimes.

Duran has said her bill is not about raising the cost of owning firearms, but Republicans in the Legislature see many of these measures as an effort to do just that.

“They're looking at any angle, anything that hurts gun owners or gun selling in the state or the gun industry,” said Republican Rep. Mike Lynch of Wellington.

Republican Rep. Gabe Evans, a former Arvada police officer, said gun violence prevention is especially personal.

“I want safe communities. I've got kids that go to school. As a cop, I responded to these situations. Arvada police officers were the first officers not from Boulder on scene for the King Soopers shooting,” he said.

But Evans doesn’t think Democrats are offering data-driven policies that will reduce violence. Instead, he believes they should be focused on empowering the justice system to identify and detain dangerous individuals. He points to a bipartisan bill he introduced that would have banned someone arrested for a third violent felony in two years from getting out of jail on a personal recognizance bond. Even though the proposal had Democratic sponsors, it was voted down by Democrats.

Democrats, who have become increasingly concerned about mass incarceration, also defeated another bipartisan bill that would have increased the penalty for stealing a firearm.

However, two Republican-backed gun proposals are still alive in the Legislature. One bill would add certain drug and auto theft felonies to the list that bars someone from possessing a firearm. Another would fund school firearm detection safety systems.

To read more stories from Colorado Public Radio, visit www.cpr.org.