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Polis isn’t going to ban guns. But that might not be the point of dayslong sit-in

Part of asking for such a radical – if unrealistic – change is to garner attention
Demonstrators gather for a 10-minute period of silence to honor individuals who died by gun violence. (Olivia Sun/The Colorado Sun via Report for America)

At 4:58 a.m. Monday, a crowd of women shuffled around in front of the Colorado Capitol attempting to form a circle. Their backpacks were loaded with water and snacks in preparation for a long day ahead – Day 1 of demanding that Gov. Jared Polis sign an unconstitutional executive order banning all guns, which he’d already made clear he would not do.

“I think that you ask for something that’s not doable to make a point,” said Gary Blum of Denver. Blum’s daughters are both organizers with Here 4 The Kids, the national advocacy group organizing the sit-in. “It’s a way to say that we don’t accept the thinking that (the government) can get away with this. There are more guns in the United States than people. So the point is to make a statement, to say that we think it’s wrong to have this many guns.”

Here 4 The Kids wrote and delivered the executive order to Polis, which states that he will declare a state of emergency due to gun violence in Colorado, enact a total ban on all guns and establish a mandatory buyback program.

The group plans to hold peaceful sit-ins at the Capitol from 5 a.m. to 8 p.m. through Thursday, or until Polis signs the order, whichever comes first.

The unconstitutionality of what Here 4 The Kids are asking of Polis and 23 other Democratic governors is not in dispute. However, “this illustrates the depth of feeling of at least this advocacy group and many people in the populous,” Deep Gulasekaram, a professor of law at Santa Clara University, said in an interview. He will begin teaching at the University of Colorado Law School in July.

“I wonder to what extent even the people putting this forward genuinely believe that this is a realistic possibility to get the governor to sign this. But the objective may not necessarily be, that in this form, this is what’s going to be what they’re pushing for,” said Gulasekaram, who is an expert in constitutional law. “I do think that the depth of feeling and what they’re trying to convey is that they would like the government in Colorado to do everything they possibly can in their power to reduce the number of firearms in Colorado and perhaps even push some constitutional boundaries in doing so.”

Going big

Part of the strategy in asking for such a radical – if unrealistic – change is to direct attention toward the anti-gun initiative, regardless of whether their demands will be met.

“Much like how we’re addressing all social issues, somebody has to be the brave one to be the first to try, and to step out,” said Erika Righter, Denver-based organizer for Here 4 the Kids.

“I believe (Polis) is going to have to do something very, very radical. The sad thing is I use the word radical very carefully, because I don’t think it’s very radical for all of us to want to be able to go to a grocery store and not think about (gun violence) or send our kids to school and wonder if today is the day you’re going to see them after school.”

Saira Rao, Here 4 The Kids’ co-founder, doesn’t think the executive order requested by her group is any more radical than the fact that there have been 276 mass shootings in the U.S. this year, and that Americans refuse to take bigger steps toward violence prevention. Others on the lawn expressed similar frustrations with the incremental approach of legislation.

How gun bans in other countries have worked

The idea of a gun buyback program isn’t new for the Denver area.

Aurora City Council members, spurred by shootings at Aurora Central High School on Nov. 15, 2021, and a few days later at Hinkley High School, hosted eight local events last year where people were able to exchange firearms for cash. The firearms were then destroyed and recreated as garden tools and jewelry.

Although the goal of these programs is to limit and reduce gun violence, there is a lack of research suggesting they do in fact lead to fewer firearm casualties. Even though there might be a lower percentage of guns in a household, it still only represents a small fraction of guns in a community that are actually relinquished.

The gap is still wide as higher risk individuals are unlikely to be among those who participate in these buyback programs. But research at Gun Policy in America, a RAND initiative, shows higher community awareness of gun violence, more responsible gun ownership habits and healthier relationships between communities and public agencies.

Both Australia and New Zealand passed significant gun-reform legislation following mass shootings. Soon after the 1996 Port Arthur Massacre in which a person using semi-automatic weapons killed 35 people and wounded 23 others at a tourist site in Tasmania, Australia enacted the National Firearm Agreement that banned automatic and semi-automatic firearms, implemented a national firearm registry and created strict licensing guidelines to possess a gun. There was also a mandatory buyback program that gathered more than 640,000 firearms. Firearm-related casualties have dramatically dropped in Australia since then.

Similar measures were passed in New Zealand after the Christchurch Mosque Shootings in 2019, where 51 people were killed and at least 40 were injured.

Recruiting people to the cause

Annie Miller, associate dean at the University of Colorado Denver School of Public Affairs, wonders if there is a more productive tactic to get Polis on board.

The governor, a former member of the board of education, has shown repeatedly that he cares deeply about education.

With enrollment statistics showing a decline in the number of students across all grades and into higher education, Miller says she can’t help thinking about the mothers in the Here 4 The Kids movement talking about how they’ve decided not to enroll their kids in school because of concern for their safety.

Hundreds of people gathered Monday at the Colorado Capitol to advocate for a ban on guns. (Olivia Sun/The Colorado Sun via Report for America)

“Several of the moms said they met on Zoom after the most recent shooting at East High School,” Miller said. “If these parents were to have their kids do a ‘sit-out’ protest from schools or if they changed tactics around this executive order toward education, they might increase their likelihood of success.”

Research repeatedly suggests that the more access people have to guns or to firearms, the more likely they are to die from firearms, she said. Pushing the Legislature to introduce bills that can reduce gun violence might have more success, she said.

“From that research side, I would be interested to see if this group (Here 4 The Kids) starts making that argument.”

‘Hot pang of whiteness’

Wolf Terry signed up as a Colorado volunteer with Here 4 The Kids six weeks ago.

She thought she’d be handing out flyers, but on her phone call with Rao, she all of a sudden became an organizer. “She was like ‘You’re a field organizer now. Just say yes.’” Terry said. “So I was like: ‘yes.’”

Rao spoke to Terry more directly than she had been spoken to before by a woman of color. “She wasn’t coddling me or taking care of my feelings, she was saying to me: ‘You have power. Use it. Now.’”

Terry calls the feeling she had when she was speaking with Rao, “a hot pang of whiteness. It’s something that speaks directly to our shame as white women, our guilt as white women, our white women tears. When Saira spoke to me like an adult, it wasn’t a yell, it was a demand: You need to do this. I felt it in my bones.”

Denise Krebs and Lori Portillo of Joshua Tree, California, hold signs advocating gun control. (Olivia Sun/The Colorado Sun via Report for America)

Others at the Capitol echoed Terry’s sentiment, saying that their presence was about more than just guns, but the intersection of gun violence and white supremacy. In 2015, Kimberly Kimball of Portland, Oregon, lost her brother to gun violence. She started working with Moms Demand Action. “I did that for a few years, I shared my story a lot. We have lots of gun laws now, but the rate of gun deaths hasn’t gone down,” Kimball said.

Drained by the personal toll of the work, Kimball stepped away for a few years. Then her sister was killed in a domestic violence incident, also involving a gun, in 2020.

“I’ve been sitting around trying to figure out if I wanted to get involved again, since this is very personal. Then I saw this,” Kimball says, referring to the June 5 demonstration, “and I appreciated the abolitionist approach, versus the lawmaking approach I was doing with Moms Demand.”

Anti-guns vs. gun-violence prevention

“To be clear, Everytown for Gun Safety, Students Demand Action, and Moms Demand Action are gun violence prevention organizations, not anti-gun organizations,” says Sam Levy, regional legal director of Everytown for Gun Safety. “We advocate for proven, viable gun violence prevention policies that are consistent with the Second Amendment and our movement includes many responsible gun owners who are fighting for gun safety and to end the gun violence epidemic.”

A few steps away from where Kimball was telling her story, Missy Espinoza, a server who lives in Denver, sat by herself in a black fold out chair. She held two hand-scrawled signs: “Guns Save Lives” and “Free Gun Training.” Espinoza is a certified pistol instructor, and she’s serious about the free gun training.

“I don’t want anybody to be a victim,” Espinoza said. “I want there to be less injustice in the world, less suffering, less victims. And the best way to do that is to be empowered.”

She says that she thinks the best way to curb gun violence is to teach young people guns as a technology. “You get to them before their little minds are exposed to all of this evil. We’re desensitized to violence, we’re desensitized because we watch these movies and play these video games, and it’s just like, we’re desensitized to how irresponsibly (guns) are being handled.

“Being a firearm owner requires you to be responsible,” she continued. “You can’t commit crimes; you can’t be violent; you can’t get in fights; you can’t be a drunk; you can’t be a drug addict; you have to be a responsible person.”

First day ends in a downpour

Though the sit-in was scheduled to run until 8 p.m. Monday, a downpour just before 4 p.m. abruptly ended the event.

A demonstrator takes shelter during a downpour that cut short the first day of the Here 4 The Kids sit-in attempting to convince Colorado Gov. Jared Polis to sign an executive order to outlaw guns. (Parker Yamasaki/The Colorado Sun)

The Colorado State Patrol, which manages security for the Capitol complex, estimated 500 to 800 people participated in the sit-in Monday. Here 4 The Kids organizers said they were hoping for 25,000.

“I am so happy that so many people showed up today. And I wish that the thousands of white women that had RSVP’d that they were coming from Colorado had actually stayed true to their word, and their children, and had actually shown up,” Rao said at around 2:30 p.m.

“It’s disappointing, but it’s also a great start,” she said. “It’s the beginning of a new day in this country, and we are very happy about it. We just wish and hope that more Coloradans will show up today and tomorrow.”

If Polis refuses to sign the executive order in a few days when the sit-in officially ends, Here 4 The Kids leaders said they will “revisit everything” and reassess their options using the lessons they learned this week.

“This is the first time that this state executive tactic has been used, so we’ve got a lot of work to do,” Rao said. “The great news is that people’s minds and thinking are shifting.”

The Colorado Sun is a reader-supported, nonpartisan news organization dedicated to covering Colorado issues. To learn more, go to coloradosun.com.