When state Rep. Judy Amabile was elected last fall to represent Boulder in the state legislature, she did not expect to personally focus on gun policy at the Capitol.
But that changed on March 22, when a gunman killed 10 people in her city, inside a King Soopers store.
Amabile became one of several Democrats who made 2021 a historic year for new, stricter gun laws in Colorado. Gov. Jared Polis signed the final three over the weekend. Democrats introduced some of the bills before the King Soopers shooting, but for some lawmakers, they all took on new urgency in its wake.
“I think we did a really great job this session of addressing this gun violence, which is a public health disaster and emergency, and the shooting in Boulder really brought that to the top of the agenda,” Amabile said.
Democrats passed a half dozen bills they say will curb gun violence. The new laws will require people to safely store firearms and report a lost or stolen firearm. Another measure is meant to better enforce an existing law that removes guns from people charged with domestic violence.
Senate Majority Leader Steve Fenberg grew up in Boulder and, like Amabile, also represents the Senate district where the shooting occurred. He said after the tragedy, his community wanted action.
“The next day, we started talking about what needs to happen,” Fenberg said. “It's always been about creating a framework, a series of policies that build on each other to create safer situations and safer environments, safer communities.”
The gun laws Colorado Democrats passed (and the one they didn't)
Democrats then came up with three new proposals, all of which became law:
- Colorado will have an office of gun violence prevention.
- Cities will be allowed to pass stricter gun laws than the state.
- And people with certain violent misdemeanors will be banned from buying a firearm for five years, including child abuse convictions, domestic violence and sexual assault.
The man charged for the King Soopers attack pled guilty to a violent misdemeanor in 2017. A felony record already results in a lifetime ban on gun ownership.
But Democrats did not try to pass a statewide assault-style weapons ban, as some advocates had called for them to do.
“I was conflicted, myself, right? I mean, I support an assault weapons ban, but from a statewide public policy perspective and where our state should go to save the most lives, I think there's a legitimate question on, is that the right next step?” Fenberg said.
Democrats didn’t appear to have enough votes within their party for the measure, but Fenberg said that wasn’t the entire calculus.
“Passing something that is so inflammatory for some communities could put those other policies in jeopardy. The reaction should not always be more gun laws at the state level,” Fenberg said.
This year's gun bills didn't draw the heated debate those from previous legislative sessions did.
The hearings for the bills they did pass drew lots of witnesses and long debates, but nothing like some gun bills in past years.
Republican House Minority Leader Hugh McKean said in some ways he’s surprised Democrats held back a bit on policies.
“Then again, I think those were very political decisions," McKean said. "They decided not to go for some of those things because they knew that the voters of Colorado would think that that went too far.”
McKean said Republicans made strong arguments against the newly passed policies, which they view as unconstitutional overreach. But he acknowledges that the opposition to this year’s gun bills was not as heated as it could have been.
“And I think one of the things that I would tell you from my perspective and talking to a lot of people is the exhaustion of people fighting an overreach by the Democrat legislature every single day,” said McKean.
Indeed, the pushback was not nearly as intense as 2013 after the Aurora theater shooting. That’s when Democrats passed universal background checks and a high capacity magazine ban. Cars circled the Capitol honking, dawn til dusk for multiple days. Members of the public packed the hallways. One Democrat in the legislature stepped down and two others were recalled from office for backing the bills.
Lesley Hollywood is a gun rights organizer. She says between the pandemic and violence around the Capitol like a shooting in March, there wasn’t much appetite this year to rally in Denver. And she said many gun rights supporters are still focused on the fallout from last year’s presidential election.
“They kind of sat back and they became kind of disorganized and disconnected.”
She also agrees that the policies Democrats put forward weren’t as inflammatory as they could have been.
“If we had seen an assault weapons ban be introduced, I think that that would have been huge," Hollywood said. "It would have been national news. It would have been, every gun rights group in the country would have pounced on that.”
In fact, the biggest political backlash over this year’s gun bills may not be against Democrats, but against McKean, who said he mistakenly voted to support House bill 1298 on expanded background checks to include violent misdemeanors.
Weeks later he was able to correct the record to vote against it. But some in his party who already disliked him have called him anti-gun and called for his ouster, and the ouster of anyone who supports him as the House leader.
“When they come after my caucus as a whole, and try to tag people with a moniker that causes them political consequences, that's ridiculous,” McKean said.
Both Democrats and Republicans, as well as gun rights advocates, have different ideas on future legislation.
Republicans and Democrats still hope to find more common ground on another element of gun violence: beefing up mental health services.
“And dealing with access and the stigmatization of people who access mental health services, those are the things we really need to work on,” McKean said.
Hollywood said she feels like a lot of people don’t understand how much the gun rights community wants tragedies like Boulder to stop.
“And we keep seeing these policies put forward that don't understand guns, don't understand gun laws, and that we know aren't going to be effective," Hollywood said. "And that's frustrating for us because we want to see things improve, but when we see bad policy be put forward and we know what the outcome is going to be, which is we'll be back there in a year and two years and three years watching these numbers [of mass killings] continue to skyrocket.”
Democrats, for their part, still want to pass more restrictions on certain gun owners. State Rep. Tom Sullivan, one of the legislature’s strongest advocates on the issue, hopes to expand the red flag gun law he sponsored and went into effect last year, to allow more people to report a concern about someone in the possession of firearms. He also wants to enact a waiting period for gun purchases, and maybe more.
“Maybe we might need to raise the minimum age. I think it's okay for an 18-year-old to be able to buy a hunting rifle or something. Maybe they shouldn't be allowed to buy an assault rifle. Maybe that should be 21,” he said.
Sullivan’s son Alex was killed in the Aurora theater shooting, which inspired him to run for office. He says Democrats still have more to do on gun policy, but that fundamentally, he’s working toward a societal shift on the issue, and that takes time.
“We're going to talk about this, just like you talk about transportation and education and healthcare and mental health, you're going to talk about those every single time. We're going to talk about this every single time.”
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