Proposed assault weapons ban fails in legislative committee

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Hart Van Denburg/CPR News
An overflow room outfitted with closed circuit TV was packed as the House Judiciary Committee held its first hearing April 19, 2023, on HB23-1230, a bill that proposes to prohibit assault weapons in Colorado. Rep. Elisabeth Epps and Sen. Rhonda Fields, both Democrats, are the prime sponsors of the measure.

Updated 7:34 a.m. 4/20/2023

A hearing on a possible statewide assault weapons ban brought hundreds of people to the Colorado capitol on Wednesday, from students and gun owners, to sheriffs and parents, for an emotional day of testimony. Witnesses shared stories of loss, grief, fear and anger. 

But the bill ultimately failed in the Democratic controlled-committee by a single vote in the early hours of the morning.

The deciding vote was 7-6, with three Democrats joining the panel’s Republicans to oppose moving it forward in the process, effectively killing the bill. This was the first time such a ban had been introduced at the legislature, and it was one of the most polarizing proposals facing lawmakers this year. Not only were Republican lawmakers unanimously opposed to it, the bill also divided Democrats. 

“I've long said that Democrats weren't serious about a statewide ban on assault weapons. So if we fail, I was right. I want to be wrong. I want to be wrong. I'd like to be wrong today,” said Democratic Rep. Elisabeth Epps of Denver, during her opening remarks. The first-year lawmaker was the main sponsor of House bill 1230

Epps said she was confident the proposal has enough support to clear the full House, where Democrats hold their largest majority in state history and could lose 13 votes and still pass the policy. 

But the biggest initial hurdle — and where the bill ultimately failed — was the House Judiciary committee .

“It's just hard to look at the math,” she said, noting that important legislative achievements often take years to pass. 

Reps. Marc Snyder of Manitou Springs, along with Bob Marshall from Highlands Ranch and Said Sharbini from Thornton were the three Democratic no votes. 

Both Marshall and Snyder said they made pledges while seeking election not to vote for bills that would take away anyone’s guns.

“Being the first Democrat elected from Douglas County since 1966, I ran on a commitment that I would oppose any rollback of gun law restrictions in this state, but that I wouldn't support any further restrictions,” said Marshall in casting his no vote. 

In a final effort to win support, Epps offered to significantly limit the scope of her bill

The bill defined an assault weapon as a “semiautomatic rifle” that uses detachable magazines and has one of a number of features, such as a pistol grip, folding stock, barrel shroud or threaded barrel, among others. It would ban the sale of certain .50 caliber rifles, semi automatic pistols, shotguns with revolving cylinders and semiautomatic shotguns, with various conditions for each type of firearm.

At the start of the hearing, Epps said she would propose an amendment to remove those provisions and reduce the bill to simply ban bump stocks, an accessory which allows a shooter to rapidly fire multiple rounds from semi-automatic weapons after an initial trigger pull. The Trump administration outlawed bumpstocks in 2018, after a gunman used them to kill 60 people and wound hundreds more at an outdoor music festival in Las Vegas.

“I was shocked, a little disappointed,” said Jane Dougherty of Epps’ decision to try to water down the bill. Dougherty lives in Littleton and has been a staunch advocate for stricter gun laws ever since her sister, Mary Sherlach, was killed in the Sandy Hook mass shooting. 

Dougherty blamed House leadership for assigning the bill to a committee it couldn’t get out of. 

Kelly Murphy with the grassroots group Moms Demand Action which pushes for tougher gun laws, said she was also blindsighted by the possible changes. Her family has been touched repeatedly by gun violence. Her two children survived the 2019 STEM School shooting, and one of her siblings shot three people, including another family member. Murphy criticized Democrats who have questioned its effectiveness.

“I think that they fully know that this would save lives and they're just being scared. They're just scared. They're afraid of what a ban will do to their seat and their position.”

Hart Van Denburg/CPR News
The House Judiciary Committee held its first hearing April 19, 2023, on HB23-1230, a bill that proposes to prohibit assault weapons in Colorado. Rep. Elisabeth Epps, above, and Sen. Rhonda Fields, both Democrats, are the prime sponsors of the measure.

However the committee rejected Epps’ proposed amendment and instead ended up voting on the original bill. Epps said passing an assault weapons ban should be “low hanging fruit” for those concerned about gun violence, and thanked the hundreds of people who testified in support of the bill and shared their personal stories. 

“I do not understand how these folks come back here in two and three minute segments and put their loved ones names into a space such as this. I don't understand how they come back, but they do. And so I will too.”

With Colorado Democrats in the process of passing their most significant slate of gun legislation in a decade, the defeat of the assault weapons ban is a rare bright spot for gun rights supporters.

“I think maybe this is a bridge too far, finally,” said Republican House Minority Leader Mike Lynch.

He blasted Epps for encouraging people to still testify in favor of a full assault weapons ban, even though she planned to, in his words, “gut her own bill.”

“So now we're really just wasting people's time because what the people thought they were coming here to testify on is no longer what they're coming to testify on. It’s a weird game that's being played here, but it doesn't do much for the people of Colorado,” said Lynch.

Hearing brings out many directly impacted by gun violence

The first witness to testify Wednesday was Patrick Pethybridge, a senior at East High School in Denver and one of the many students who came to participate in the committee hearing. Pethybridge said he was inspired to come by the recent violence at his school. 

Earlier this year, 16-year-old student Luis Garcia was fatally shot just outside of East. Then, just weeks later, 17-year-old student Austin Lyle shot and severely injured two administrators while they were patting him down. Lyle fled and later took his own life

Pethybridge said Lyle was in his fourth-grade class, and he took AP Spanish with Garcia, who he described as helpful to other classmates. 

“All this gun violence is because of the fact that we have so much access to firearms in this country and we need to take small steps in order to reduce that access,” he told CPR News.

Pethybridge plans to attend CU Boulder in the fall and said the deaths of his fellow students have stained what was supposed to be the most exciting and impactful year of his high school career.

Hart Van Denburg/CPR News
Denver East High School senior Patrick Pethybridge leaves a hearing after testifying before the House Judiciary Committee April 19, 2023, in support of HB23-1230, a bill that proposes to prohibit assault weapons in Colorado. The high school has been the scene of two shootings this year.

“My wanting to graduate high school comes not from the excitement of having completed all four years of high school, but wanting to escape the violence that has plagued these last few months of my high school years,” Pethybridge said. 

Opponents said the measure would not deter criminals or solve the problem of gun violence and mass shootings. Sheriffs from Weld, Douglas, El Paso, and Mesa counties were among those who testified against the proposal. 

“I'm just as disgusted as everyone else by seeing these mass shootings,” said Douglas County Sheriff Darren Weekly. He said his staff is on the front lines of gun violence every day. “But we must attack these problems without compromising individual rights by gradually and methodically chipping away at liberty under the guise of safety.”

Other witnesses argued that the bill is an exercise in futility, given that it would certainly face a legal challenge and the conservative majority on the U.S. Supreme Court has shown itself to be skeptical of gun regulations.

Bill divided Democrats

While Democratic lawmakers have been generally unified behind the session’s other gun bills, the assault weapons ban has always faced an uphill course.

It was not included in the package of gun bills legislative leaders unveiled together in late February. And once it was finally introduced, it languished for more than a month before being scheduled for its first hearing.

House legislative leaders said they were undecided on whether they would back it if the bill made it to the floor. 

House Speaker Julie McCluskie is from Dillon and represents a large stretch of the central mountains. She said she’s been getting a lot of feedback from her constituents and is trying to balance their many different views.

“In the more rural reaches (of the district), I hear a great deal of concern about the assault weapons ban,” she said earlier this week. “In my rural resort communities, I hear a great deal of support.”

Rep. Snyder said during the hearing that he worries about the implications of passing a ban in Colorado when many neighboring states have much less restrictive gun laws.  

“Even if this passes all the way through and gets signed by the Governor, is it gonna have a meaningful effect on the availability of guns when you can just go to Wyoming or any neighboring state and get all the weapons you want?” he asked. 

Editor's Note: The story has been updated to clarify the process of the committee's vote.