The gun control debate has risen to a fever pitch at the state legislature, with a package of bills getting their first hearings in committee this week. Up on Wednesday, a ban on concealed weapons on public university campuses, and a new fee for gun sale background checks. Things kicked off Tuesday with hundreds of people coming to the Capitol for the first two bills in the package.  Colorado Public Radio’s Megan Verlee reports on what they had to say.

[The following is a transcript of Megan's report]

 

Reporter Megan Verlee:  First up on the docket: a bill expanding background checks to all gun sales in Colorado. The policy’s been much-discussed since the mass shootings in Aurora and Newtown, Connecticut. But bill sponsor Beth McCann of Denver says the larger goal is to prevent more common crimes, like domestic violence.

Rep Beth McCann [D-Denver]:  "Think about it for a minute. If you wanted to get a gun, and you knew you wouldn’t be able to pass the background check that we currently require, what would you do? You would go to a private seller."

Reporter:  McCann’s solution is to require even private sellers to run background checks on buyers through licensed gun stores. Opponents of the policy questioned whether that would put too much of a burden on the right to bear arms. Specifically, Republican Representative Jared Wright of Fruita questioned Representative McCann.

Rep Jared Wright [R-Fruita]: “Can you tell me how you believe this to be constitutional? Thank you.” 

Rep McCann: “It’s my belief that reasonable restrictions can be placed on constitutional rights.  That has been upheld through several court cases.”

Reporter:  In addition to constitutional concerns, opponents argued that universal background checks won’t stop criminals bent on acquiring guns. And they worry about where the policy will lead. 19-year-old Sean Verhoeff.

Sean Verhoeff:  "It’s not just this bill that comes down the pike, but it’s the next bill and the next bill and the next bill. What is the state of Colorado going to do to protect my gun rights?"

Reporter:  Verhoeff was among hundreds of gun rights supporters who packed the hearing room. On the other side, speaking in favor of expanding background checks, were police chiefs, some gun owners, and family members of murder victims, including Terry Cook of Boulder, whose parents were shot to death in Ohio more than twenty years ago.

Terry Cook:  "You can’t help thinking, after something like this happens, what is the cost of a bullet? Is it a dollar? is that the price of a life, a dollar?"

Reporter:  After hours of debate the bill passed, unchanged, on a party line vote: Democrats for, Republicans against. And then it was on to bill number two, a ban on ammunition magazines that hold more than 10 rounds. Among its advocates was Arapahoe County Coroner Michael Dobersen.

Dr. Michael Dobersen [Arapahoe County Coroner]:  "Obviously no one bill is going to solve all our problems, but we have to start somewhere. We’ve got to do something to minimize the violence and minimize the number of grieving families. I’m tired of taking bullets out of kids."

Reporter: Opponents of the ban, though, say that larger magazines are standard equipment for many guns.And they argued those magazines can save lives. Charles Robles told the committee about being attacked and shot by robbers a decade ago.

Charles Robles:  "The only reason why I’m here to give you this testimony, and the only reason I’m able to, is because of a high capacity magazine that I had. I fired 13 rounds in defense of my life. Had I not had that opportunity, I would not be here with you now."

Reporter:  Robles' testimony proved persuasive. The committee agreed to alter the bill, raising the limit on ammunition magazines to 15 rounds and shotgun capacity to eight shells. It wasn’t enough to persuade the panel’s Republicans, though; they voted against the bill. But majority Democrats again prevailed.  After sitting through nearly twelve hours of hearings, gun rights supporter Sean Verhoeff says he’ll definitely be back for more.

Verhoeff:  "It’s not the end of the line. It’s got to go through the full House and then the full Senate. There’s still several steps before these bills become law, so we have several chances in order fight these bills."

Reporter:  And that means gun control supporters aren’t breaking out the champagne yet. After successfully spearheading both bills through committee yesterday, Representative Rhonda Fields admits she’s worried about what comes next.

Rep Rhonda Fields [D-Denver]:  "Just because we got it out of the committee doesn’t mean that it’s gonna pass on the floor.  So I still have more work to do."

Reporter: For the moment, though, she’ll be passing the gun control baton on to other House Democrats, the ones whose whose firearms bills are up for hearings today.

[Photo: MVerlee/CPR]