‘Assault weapons’ ban back on the agenda at Colorado state Capitol

Listen Now
7min 50sec
Hart Van Denburg/CPR News
Morning light on the state Capitol dome, Wednesday, Jan. 10, 2023, as the General Assembly prepares to begin a new session.

For the second year in a row, a ban on so-called assault weapons has been introduced in the Colorado legislature.

A similar proposal failed by one vote last year in its first Democratic-controlled committee. But Tuesday afternoon, a revived effort made its debut at the state capitol. 

The topic is sure to polarize the statehouse, with Republicans universally opposed and Democrats divided, expressing varying degrees of support and concern about how such a ban would be enforced. 

“My generation is the generation of mass shootings in our country,” said Democratic Rep. Tim Hernández of Denver, one of the main sponsors of House Bill 1292. At age 26, he’s currently the state’s youngest lawmaker, and he’s just months into his term after being appointed to fill a vacancy.

“We've been waiting in classrooms to die because adults wouldn't be bold enough on gun violence,” he said. 

As introduced, Hernádez’s bill would ban the sale and transfer of assault weapons, but not the possession of them, so people who already own these types of firearms would be allowed to keep them. 

It 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, semi automatic pistols, shotguns with revolving cylinders and semiautomatic shotguns.

The bill includes some exemptions, including for police and military members who keep these weapons for work. It would still allow banned firearms to be used at firing ranges.

Hernádez previously taught at a high school in Aurora and attended protests at the capitol last year, when hundreds of students walked out of classrooms to urge the legislature to do more to prevent gun violence. He said his students told him this was the top issue they wanted him to work on as a lawmaker.  

He said there’s a lot of momentum to move the bill forward and believes it will keep schools and youth safer, with the goal of reducing the number of assault weapons in circulation.

“We diminish the opportunity for folks to practice that version of gun violence, and more importantly, we really show up in a way that our communities are asking, regardless of what folks on the policy side would say is going to be effective or not,” Hernádez said. 

Opponents argue these types of bans are ineffective and unconstitutionally infringe on second amendment rights.

Second Amendment groups pledge to challenge ban in court

Rocky Mountain Gun Owners immediately condemned the measure as unconstitutional. Executive Director Taylor Rhodes said his group will sue should it pass. RMGO’s national partner, Gun Owners of America, has asked the U.S. Supreme Court to weigh in on an assault weapons ban that Illinois lawmakers passed. 

Second Amendment groups are working in a more favorable legal landscape in the wake of the Supreme Court’s 2022 Bruen decision. The 6-3 ruling struck down a century-old New York law requiring a license to carry a handgun in public and set a new “historical precedent” standard all state and federal gun laws must meet, increasing the rigor to pass constitutional muster. 

A handful of Colorado cities have passed local assault weapons bans in recent years, and Rhodes points out that the courts have put many of those restrictions on hold.

“Assault weapons bans, any ban on arms, is not consistent with the Bruen decision,” said Rhodes, because of the “history, and tradition, that test that it has to be met with.” 

Rhodes said he’s cognizant of the fact that Republicans in the state legislature lack the votes to stop any of the Democratic gun proposals this year, including the assault weapons ban. That’is one reason he said he won’t be spending the bulk of his time rallying his group’s members to come to the statehouse.

“I'm not saying it's a lost cause for us to spend money. We still are spending money in the legislature, but the majority of our resources are being tied up in the courts right now,” he said.

The question of an assault weapons ban divides statehouse Democrats

Last year’s version of the assault weapons ban had a rough road in the legislature. It languished for more than a month before it got its first hearing, which ended with an attempt by the bill’s sponsor to significantly water it down. Three House Democrats sided with the panel’s Republicans and voted against it.

Some of those Democratic no votes are no longer members of the House Judiciary committee, including former Rep. Said Sharbini, and Rep. Bob Marshall of Highlands Ranch. Marshall said he was honoring a campaign promise with his vote against the measure. 

“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,” he said. 

Another Democrat who opposed it, Rep. Marc Snyder, still sits on the judiciary committee. He worried about how effective the bill would be when neighboring states like Wyoming have much less restrictive gun laws and people could purchase firearms there.

If the proposal can make it out of the House committee, the bill may have a better chance on the floor. Democrats hold a historic majority, so backers could lose as many as 13 Democratic votes in that chamber and still pass the measure onto the Senate, which has a slightly smaller Democratic majority but narrower committees.

Notably, the ban was not brought forward by the same lawmakers whose names have been on other pieces of successful gun legislation in recent years.

Democratic Rep. Meg Froelich of Denver has been actively engaged on the issue and is sponsoring measures this session to give the Colorado Bureau of Investigation authority to investigate firearms crimes, and create a merchant code for firearm purchases to let banks  potentially track suspicious gun purchases. She said she supports banning assault weapons, but is putting her main focus on stepping up implementation and enforcement of the state’s current laws.

“We are having problems with enforcement on ghost guns and magazine limits, and we're seeing just a checkerboard enforcement across the state,” said Froelich.

Fiona Macdonald, a 16-year-old student at Denver East high school, plans to attend the hearing because she is involved with her high school’s Students Demand Action group. She said an assault weapons ban is a step in the right direction. 

“Growing up in America, there's always kind of that feeling that you're not truly safe in schools,” Macdonald said. And I feel like it's almost a common experience for every student to think, ‘What am I going to do in the case that there's a shooter or what's going to happen to me?’” 

She said students at East are still grieving the death of former classmate, Luis Garcia, a 16-year-old who was shot outside the school last year and later died. The community was further shaken by the shooting of two school administrators by a student who later took his own life.

“I feel like everybody's still almost on edge because there's no guarantee that things like this can't happen again, or happen to people that we know and we care about,” Macdonald said.

The bill now awaits a hearing before the House Judiciary Committee, which has not been scheduled yet.