9 questions about gun laws in Colorado, answered

Hart Van Denburg/CPR News
A cautionary sign at the Pikes Peak Gun Club east of Colorado Springs on Wednesday, March 31, 2021.

The mass shootings in Uvalde, Texas, and Buffalo, New York, have set off another cycle of national debate over gun laws. But laws vary widely from state to state. Here are answers to some questions you may have about Colorado’s gun laws.

What are the rules for purchasing, carrying, and using guns?

Colorado does not have a waiting period for gun purchases. It also does not have any specific age restrictions and instead defaults to the federal rules: A person must be at least 18 years old to purchase rifles and other long guns, and 21 to buy handguns.

Coloradans 21 years and older can get a permit for concealed carry, issued through the local sheriff’s office; the state does not require gun owners to give a reason for wanting one. It also honors permits from most other states. No permit is needed to carry openly, although some cities, like Denver, ban it. State law bans the creation of any sort of firearms registry by the government.

The state has a ‘castle doctrine’ allowing people to use deadly force in their own homes, without a duty to retreat.

What is the history of gun reform in Colorado?

Colorado has passed a number of laws within the last decade aimed at addressing gun violence, often in response to mass shootings. Voters in the state chose to close the so-called ‘gun show loophole’ after the Columbine massacre in 1999, requiring background checks for purchases at trade shows.

More recent gun laws in the state include:

Are further laws likely to be proposed?

Colorado’s legislative session just wrapped up two weeks ago and lawmakers won’t reconvene until next January. In between, the November election could shift the balance of power in the statehouse. Even if Democrats maintain their majorities, three out of the legislature’s four leaders are leaving, so any potential reaction to the recent mass shootings is highly speculative.

We’re still implementing everything we passed after the King Soopers mass shooting in Boulder. The Office of Gun Violence Prevention is just up and running,” said Democratic Senate President Steve Fenberg, who will be returning next session. “That office should inform us about what we prioritize and what we do in the future.” 

Fenberg said he thinks at the state level Colorado has already passed many significant gun policies, and while he personally supports things like an assault-style weapons ban, he thinks it’s better addressed at the federal level. 

Democratic Rep. Tom Sullivan has been one of the driving forces behind recent gun control measures; he got into politics after his son Alex was killed in the Aurora theater shooting. Sullivan said last year that there’s more work he wants to do. Sullivan is now running for state Senate in a district that leans slightly Democratic.

He has said in the past that he hopes to expand the red flag gun law to allow more people to seek Extreme Risk Protection Orders against people they are concerned are dangerous. He also wants to enact a waiting period for gun purchases and to potentially raise the minimum age to purchase some types of guns.

“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,” Sullivan told CPR last session.

How many guns are sold in the state every year?

In the last five years, there have been 1,975,578 approved background checks for firearm purchases. Gun purchases in Colorado averaged 12,256 per month between 2001 and October 2008. The following month, after Barack Obama was elected president, gun purchases doubled compared to November 2007. That marked a turning point for Colorado. 

Since the end of 2008, the state has averaged 28,174 approved background checks a month. Gun sales have surged further during the pandemic, averaging 38,755 a month since March 2020.

How many Coloradans are denied a gun sale due to a failed background check each year?

The number of failed background checks varies from year to year. In 2020, some 14,227 people were denied a firearm purchase due to a failed background check, according to Colorado Bureau of Investigation data.

How many gun sellers are there in Colorado?

As of January 2022, there are 2,270 entities holding Federal Firearms Licenses in the state of Colorado, according to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. These are not limited to brick-and-mortar locations but can also be individuals who are licensed to deal firearms.

Why is the gun lobby so powerful?

Second Amendment advocates and groups have largely been successful at stopping gun law reform at the federal level. They’re able to raise large amounts of funds and back certain candidates. In the past, new gun restrictions have been met with fierce opposition; firearms are deeply ingrained in the state’s culture. The 2013 changes to gun laws did lead to the historic recall of two state senators and the resignation of a third. After the passage of 2019’s Red Flag law, a number of conservative sheriffs vowed not to enforce it.

However, several recall attempts in 2019 where supporters cited the red flag law as one driving reason fizzled out and Rocky Mountain Gun Owners, a firearms lobby, changed leadership after all the candidates they backed in the 2020 election went down in defeat.

Are any local governments using their power to pass stronger restrictions than the state?

Democrats at the statehouse passed a law in 2021 allowing stricter local gun regulations after the courts struck down Boulder County’s assault weapons ban.

The city of Boulder is moving ahead with a half-dozen new laws, including increasing the age limit for purchasing and possessing any type of firearm to age 21; requiring gun stores to post a warning about the dangers of guns; adding a 10-day waiting period for purchases; and banning concealed carry near parks, playgrounds and some other spaces.

The city gave preliminary approval to the package this week and will hold a public meeting and final vote on June 7. If passed, the ordinances will take effect July 1.

Define what “open carry” means in Colorado.

Colorado law allows for individuals to openly carry and display handguns and long rifles without special permits. Local governments have the authority to pass ordinances that prohibit open carry in certain buildings or public spaces. Denver, for example, has an ordinance banning open carry throughout the city.