Gun control goes on trial Monday in federal court. Opponents are challenging the Colorado laws, passed in the wake of the Aurora and Newtown mass shootings, as unconstitutional. Supporters counter that universal background checks and a ban on high-capacity magazines have saved lives.
Tom Sullivan never thought much about guns or gun control. That is until his son was killed in the Aurora theater shooting by a gunman wielding a rifle with a 100-round magazine.
Sullivan is convinced if Colorado’s ban on high-capacity magazines had been in effect, his son Alex may have had a chance.
“It was one second, and the next second he was dead, and that was because of the high-capacity magazines,” Sullivan says.
After the Aurora shooting, Sullivan turned to activism. He successfully lobbied for stricter background checks for all private gun sales and a ban on magazines holding more than 15 rounds.
The law doesn’t sit well with Weld County Sheriff John Cooke.
“The problem is, who is the government to tell a citizen how many rounds they need to defend themselves,” Cooke says.
Cooke joined a group of sheriffs and gun store owners suing the state to overturn the laws Sullivan worked so hard on. Cooke argues, among other things, they violate the 2nd amendment.
He says the gun control measures were arbitrary, knee-jerk reactions by politicians unfamiliar with guns.
“Even if it tramples on people’s rights, and it tramples on our heritage, we got to do something,” Cooke says sarcastically. “Just to make it look like we’re doing something because otherwise, you know we’re not doing anything.”
For example, Cooke says the background check law is so unreasonable he wouldn’t be able to store guns at a neighbor's house for more than three days without the neighbor getting a background check.
Rich Wyatt agrees with Cooke.
“It’s not western,” Wyatt says. “It’s not American. It’s not right for this country or this state.”
Wyatt manages the Gunsmoke gun store in Wheat Ridge. He sells new guns and antiques, but one thing you won’t find in his store is high-capacity magazines. Though Wyatt says step into any gun owner’s home and you’ll surely find one.
“They’re completely common, they’re everywhere, everybody has ‘em,” Wyatt says. “It’s not something that can ever be controlled even if you ban them.”
The argument for banning high-capacity magazines is that without them a shooter is forced to reload. Proponents of the ban say that’s how the crowd stopped Jared Loughner after he shot then-Arizona Representative Gabrielle Giffords in Tucson, Ariz.
But Wyatt says changing a clip does not leave a shooter as vulnerable as you might think. A practiced shooter can change a clip in a couple of seconds. Still proponents for smaller magazines, such as former state senator John Morse, say these laws are reasonable, and could save lives.
“I mean Colorado is safer from gun violence for what we did,” Morse says. “It was absolutely the right thing to do.”
If he sounds confident it’s because several courts outside of Colorado have upheld state’s rights to limit magazine size. Eight other states have similar restrictions.
No matter the outcome in court, voters may get their say. Several groups are pushing for a statewide ballot measure that would overturn the laws.
Tom Sullivan, whose son was killed in Aurora theater shooting, says if the laws are overturned, he has no problem pressuring lawmakers in Denver to do something again.
“I’m not going to be able to watch my son age year after year, which fathers normally do,” Sullivan says. “But by God, I’ll come down here and I’ll watch you people age year after year if you feel the need to bring these up year after year.”
And as hard as that is, he says that’s his cross to bear.
The trial starts Monday and is expected to last two weeks. No matter the outcome, both sides will likely appeal.