Colorado Democrats introduce state assault weapons ban

Hart Van Denburg/CPR News
Signs calling for an assault weapon ban join the makeshift memorial outside the Table Mesa King Soopers in Boulder, March 24, 2021.

Democrats introduced an assault weapons ban at the Colorado statehouse late Friday, a move which is sure to inflame the legislature and potentially push away some in the party who have expressed reservations about whether the state could enforce such a ban. 

House Bill 1230 was assigned to the House Judiciary Committee where several of the co-sponsors serve, including the bill’s main sponsor, Democratic state Rep. Elisabeth Epps.

Democrats could lose as many as 13 votes in the House and still pass the measure onto the Senate, which has a smaller Democratic majority.

The ban was introduced on the same day that at least a thousand Denver high school students walked out of class in response to the death of a 16-year-old classmate from East High who was shot near campus last month. The protesters made their way to the state capitol, where they were invited to come inside and speak with lawmakers as part of a lobby day to advocate for stricter gun laws.

East High school in Denver is in Democratic state Rep. Leslie Herod’s district, who is running for Denver mayor. She said she hears from young people riddled with anxiety and strapped with fear, and she doesn’t think the legislature has done enough to stop the gun violence that's happening with youth today.

“They just want us to act as adults,” Herod said, adding she would vote for an assault weapons ban. 

“We need real bills that will make a difference. I believe the bills that are being proposed right now are strong. I will support them,” she said.

Hart Van Denburg/CPR News
Democratic state Rep. Leslie Herod, at the Capitol, March 2, 2023.

At the center of the debate is the question of what constitutes an assault weapon. As written, the measure would define an assault weapon as a “semiautomatic rifle” that uses detachable magazines and has one of a number of features, these include a pistol grip, a folding stock, a barrel shroud, a threaded barrel, among others. The draft also would ban certain .50 caliber rifles, semiautomatic pistols, shotguns with revolving cylinders and semiautomatic shotguns.

The bill would seek to allow current owners to keep any firearms they already possess, but would ban the sale and transfer of certain classifications of guns going forward.

There would be some exemptions such as antique rifles as well as exceptions for police and military members who keep weapons for work. It would also allow firearms on the list to be used at firing ranges.

Rocky Mountain Gun Owners called the measure unconstitutional. 

“All these Democrats listed here are violating their oath of office and attempting to violate the Constitution and Colorado Constitution to illegally impose unconstitutional gun laws on the people of Colorado,” the group posted in a tweet.

Policies related to firearms tend to be among the most partisan and contentious debates at the state Capitol. That was certainly the case with the first Democratic gun bill introduced this session, which would give Colorado counties more authority to prohibit people from firing weapons on private property in certain unincorporated areas.

Seven House Democrats joined Republicans to vote against HB-1165, many of them from more rural or conservative parts of the state. Democratic state Rep. Bob Marshall of Highlands Ranch said he doesn’t plan to vote for any Democratic bills to enact stricter gun laws.

This will be the first time the Colorado legislature has ever formally considered an assault weapons ban

In 2021, shortly after a gunman killed 10 people at a Boulder King Soopers, some lawmakers discussed introducing a ban on some types of firearms. However, there wasn’t enough support to move forward with the legislation — even though Democrats controlled the legislature and the governor’s mansion.

House Republicans were quick to denounce the latest move and issue a call to action. 

Opponents began circulating a draft of the bill during the start of the legislative session in January, and for weeks it wasn’t clear if the measure would be introduced at all. The ban wasn’t included in a package of four gun bills Democrats unveiled on Feb. 23. Meanwhile, Democrats have been divided on whether to move ahead with it. 

“We've got a lot of work to do, I think, before we step into that,” said Democratic state Sen. Tom Sullivan of Littleton, who mentioned giving the state licensing authority over gun stores as a priority over an assault weapons ban. “If you look at those other nine states that have [assault weapons bans], they've already passed all of that kind of (other) stuff we're woefully behind on.”

Death Penalty Repeal House Committee Hearing
State Rep. Tom Sullivan lost his son Alex in the Aurora Theater shooting in 2012.

Sullivan is sponsoring a bill to expand the state’s extreme risk protection order law, also known as ERPO. He is also one of the strongest gun reform advocates in the state after his son Alex was killed in the 2012 Aurora Theater shooting. 

He said preventing gun violence is what drives him. 

“Saving lives and helping others to not have to live the life I have since Alex was murdered is the sole reason I wake up every day to do all I can to do that work,” he said at a press conference at the capitol announcing a package of gun bills — which did not include the assault weapons ban.

A slate of bills with support from Democratic legislative leadership would

  • House Bill 1219: Institute a three-day waiting period for all gun purchases. This bill will have its first hearing Monday.
  • Senate Bill 169: Raise the age to purchase any type of firearm to 21.
  • Senate Bill 170: Add district attorneys, educators, health care providers and licensed mental health professionals to the list of people who can file an Extreme Risk Protection Order to remove someone’s guns.
  • Senate Bill 168: Make it easier to sue firearm manufacturers for liability.

Gov. Polis said his top priority is to pass stricter laws around ghost guns and a measure to address that is expected to be introduced soon. So far Polis has not come out in favor of an assault weapons ban.

The NRA's state association, the Colorado State Shooting Association, called the assault weapons ban “tyrannical” in an email to supporters before the measure was introduced.

Democrats hold the widest majority in state history, and the NRA said it was already preparing for a legal challenge should the proposal become law.

“To stop the gun-grabbers, we're going to sue the State of Colorado after this bill becomes law. And we need your help,” declared the State Shooting Association.