Colorado Republicans attempted to filibuster gun control and supervised drug use bills, leading to a legislative all-nighter

Hart Van Denburg/CPR News
Republican Senate Minority Leader Paul Lundeen, right, speaks in opposition to tightening the state’s Extreme Risk Protection Order, “red flag” law, on March 10, 2023. Democratic Senate President Steve Fenberg, center, and state Sen. Tom Sullivan, left, look on. Sullivan’s son was killed in the 2012 Aurora theatre shooting.

Colorado House members did not enter the state Capitol building as usual Friday morning. Instead of getting a start on the work day, most were leaving the capitol after wrapping up a marathon debate on stricter gun laws and supervised drug use. 

The all-nighter was a result of House Republicans’ attempt to filibuster two bills: one to institute a three-day waiting period for gun purchases, and another to let local governments decide whether people would be able to use illicit drugs such as heroin and fentanyl under the supervision of medical professionals

Democratic supporters of both bills say the measures are about saving lives. Backers of a three-day waiting period for gun purchases say it will reduce suicides and homicides by giving people a chance to cool off and potentially change their minds. 

Democratic Rep. Judy Amabile of Boulder is a main sponsor and recalled how her own son tried to purchase a gun while going through a mental health crisis five years ago. Amabile had to personally convince the store owner not to sell him a firearm. She said she hopes this measure would save people who end up being in her son’s situation.

“There's a lot of them who have a moment when they think, ‘I can't handle this anymore,’ and they go and they get a gun, and then they're dead. And then there is no coming back from that.” 

House Bill 1219 is part of a package of Democratic gun bills which also includes raising the minimum age for purchasing firearms to 21, expanding the list of people who can file an Extreme Risk Protection Order to temporarily remove someone’s guns, and making it easier to sue firearm manufacturers for liability.

The Senate was debating the other measures throughout the day Friday.

Republican state Rep. Ken DeGraaf of Colorado Springs called the waiting period bill difficult because he thinks the intentions behind it are good. Still, he said he can’t support it.   

“Mental health and suicide are serious issues and they need to be addressed. But there is a significant history and there's a significant reason why the framers of our constitution bounded our decision-making in the Constitution the way it did,” DeGraaf said. 

The debate on the supervised drug sites bill

Debate on that measure lasted until after 2 a.m. Then it was on to supervised drug use sites.

Democratic state Rep. Elisabeth Epps of Denver is a main sponsor of House Bill 1202 to allow local communities to set up supervised drug sites. She said the sites would help prevent overdose deaths.

“If we had managed to arrest our way out of overdoses, to pray our way out of overdoses to tough love our way out of overdoses, if those things alone had worked, we wouldn't be here asking, begging for the opportunity to do this,” Epps said. 

Republicans countered it would encourage illegal drug use and endanger public safety.  They also questioned whether the move would actually save lives.

State Rep. Richard Holtorf said the bill would not help people end dependency on drugs. 

“We are just gonna wait until they feel like they need to find that freedom. How long would that take? Because everybody knows when you are on drugs, you're not thinking clearly. Your judgment is greatly impaired,” Holtorf said. “Many people never get to the bottom to come back up because they die on the streets of [an] overdose.”

A final vote on both measures is scheduled for a rare Saturday session, which also happens to be the day Colorado Republicans are meeting in Loveland to select a new state party chair. (Some House Republicans said they planned to send a proxy to vote for chair on their behalf.)

Lawmakers expect more late nights as GOP uses its limited toolbox

While late nights and debates until the early morning hours are typical, overnight debates are rare, and they almost never involve Saturday work. 

“What we're hoping for is that the Democrats will stop pursuing these political ideological goals and they will actually meet us and have the conversations about how do we do the work that the people of Colorado sent us here to do,” said Republican House Minority Leader Mike Lynch. 

Democrats hold a wide majority in the chamber with 46 seats. Republicans have 19 seats, a  historic low after the midterm election led to a net gain for Democrats in both chambers. 

The all-night debate happened at the midpoint of the four-month-long session. Usually, it's when the legislature is ending session, and the calendar gets tighter, that the GOP minority can most effectively pump the breaks. Delay tactics to slow down or to try and stop the Democratic agenda are some of the only tools the GOP minority has. 

And there are many bills that concern Republicans.

Another gun reform measure awaiting its first hearing would institute a statewide assault weapons ban in Colorado

“We're ready to fight,” said Republican state Rep. Brandi Bradley from Douglas County. “I mean, that's the only thing that we have right now. So if we go into the long hours every single night, I make it my duty to do that.”

Bradley said she’s especially worried about a slate of Democratic measures that seek to extend new legal protections to providers and people who receive abortions and gender-affirming care.

Republican state Rep. Lisa Frizell from Castle Rock said it feels like lawmakers are behind where they need to be at this point in the session.

“My concern around this especially is [that] the Democrat caucus is going to be cramming bills down everybody's throats and they aren't going to read them,” she said. “They're just going to rubber stamp them.”

But if history is any indication, stalling tactics will not stop bills that have wide Democratic support.

Last year a bill guaranteeing access to an abortion prompted some of the longest debates at the capitol in recent memory, with the two chambers devoting more than 40 hours to arguing over it, including an overnight House session. It passed on completely partisan lines, without a single Democrat opposing it and not one Republican voting for it. 

For all the attention that overnight debates draw, Republicans' best chance of thwarting the Democratic agenda may be another Democrat: Gov. Jared Polis. He has expressed serious reservations about a number of Democratic bills moving through the legislature, from allowing communities to institute rent control, to supervised drug use sites. 

“I'd be, you know, deeply concerned with any approach that would contribute to more drug use and lawlessness,” said Polis in a recent media availability. “We have focused on the behavioral health response, at the state level, to substance abuse.” 

Late nights don’t bother Democrats

“There's no amount of filibustering that's gonna keep us from doing the work of the people,” said Democratic state Rep. Junie Joseph of Boulder, who is in her first year at the legislature. 

She said while she knew the debate that began on Thursday would be long, she wasn’t sure what to expect. 

“I thought we would be out when we got past 11 [p.m.] I said, ‘Okay, for sure by 1 o'clock we would be out,’ and we were not. I would have to say I'm very surprised the way the night went.”

Democratic legislative leaders have an ambitious agenda, and House Speaker Pro Tem Chris deGruy Kennedy said he understands that there's strong differences of opinion about some of these issues. 

“It's worthwhile to have the conversation as long as it takes. So if we're gonna have more all-nighters like this throughout the session, I think the House Democrats are here for it.”

The Senate debate was still ongoing at the time of publication.