Ban on assault weapons clears Colorado House

Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite
The Colorado State Capitol building, seen from atop the downtown Sheraton hotel. Dec. 29, 2023.

A bill to ban the sale of so-called assault weapons in Colorado cleared the Democratic controlled House on Sunday. 

Under the legislation, businesses and individuals would no longer be able to sell or transfer these weapons, but current owners would be allowed to keep their guns. 

“I ask us to commit, colleagues, to never forgetting, as begged by community members, family members, and children themselves over 25 years, and every year since,” said Democratic Rep. Tim Hernández of Denver on the House floor in reference to the Columbine shooting on April 20th, 1999. He’s one of the bill’s main sponsors, and at age 26, the legislature’s youngest member. 

House bill 1292 would define an assault weapon as a “semiautomatic rifle” that uses detachable magazines and has one of a number of features. Those include a pistol grip, a folding stock, a barrel shroud or a threaded barrel. The bill would also ban certain .50 caliber rifles, semi automatic pistols, shotguns with revolving cylinders and semiautomatic shotguns.

The bill passed the house 35 to 27, with three members absent. Democrats hold a supermajority in the chamber and could lose 13 votes, but they only lost eight. The bill now heads to the state Senate.

This is the first time an assault weapons bill has advanced this far. A similar proposal failed in the House Judiciary Committee last year and in years prior there wasn’t enough support from Democrats to even introduce a measure. 

“The community I represent is [as] diverse as are the views of our caucus, and the views of Coloradans,” said Democratic House majority leader Monica Duran, who voted to support the bill. She holds a concealed carry permit and has been an advocate for responsible gun ownership. 

“The outreach I have received from every corner of my district has been phenomenal and they support this bill, said Duran.” 

Every Republican lawmaker opposed the bill, arguing that it  is not only unconstitutional but poorly crafted, ineffective and would actually make Colorado less safe. Rep. Marc Catlin of Montrose said his heart goes out to the victims of mass shootings, but said painting a broad brush on a huge part of the state is not the answer. 

“Opponents said the state doesn’t have a gun problem but a culture problem,” said Rep. Ken DeGraaf of Colorado Springs. “We should probably get to a point where we look at why communities don’t value life.”

Rep. Ryan Armagost of Berthoud said the bill would collapse the gun market. 

“This covers 80 percent of modern firearms,” he added. “How can we take that right for people to purchase a tool?”

The National Rifle Association also opposed the bill, saying it would continue to fight the bill as it moves through the legislature.

“This unconstitutional ban on commonly owned firearms is the most anti-gun bill ever passed by the Colorado House,” said Travis Couture-Lovelady, NRA Colorado State Director in a statement. “HB24-1292's broad definition of a so-called ‘assault weapon’ bans all semi-automatic rifles, including America’s most popular rifle, the AR-15, along with countless other rifles, pistols, and shotguns that Coloradans use for hunting, target shooting, and self-defense.”

While the bill has momentum, legal challenges loom

Historically, opponents of bans on specific types of weapons have criticized the criteria as unenforceable and often out of touch with the nuances of firearm styles. 

Colorado Democrats have passed a number of stricter gun laws in recent years. But an assault weapons ban has felt out of reach for those who wanted the state to do more..

Just three years ago, after a mass shooting at the King Soopers in Boulder, there wasn’t enough support to introduce a bill in the legislature. Leading Democrats said at the time the policy would need to happen at the federal level to be effective. 

However, there appears to be more momentum and appetite this year for a larger volume of gun proposals.

“We need a federal ban, but we're not going to wait for the federal government to save us anymore,” said Democratic Rep. Elisabeth Epps of Denver, one of the bill’s main sponsors. 

While the bill cleared a huge hurdle on Sunday, its fate is not sealed in the Democratic-controlled Senate. The chamber has fewer members, and more closely divided committees. Last session, the Senate frequently blocked or watered down some of the progressive priorities.

Colorado’s constitution protects individual gun ownership, stating: “The right of no person to keep and bear arms in defense of his home, person and property, or in aid of the civil power when thereto legally summoned, shall be called in question.”

And while the state Supreme Court has upheld past gun laws as legal under that provision, Second Amendment groups are operating in a more favorable legal environment. In 2022, the U.S Supreme Court’s Bruen decision set a new “historical precedent” standard that all state and federal gun laws must meet, increasing the rigor for these policies to pass constitutional muster. 

In the House chamber on Sunday, the final vote and discussion took the entire afternoon. House Speaker Julie McCluskie asked members to avoid characterizations of one another, or groups or organizations, and model the value of respect for civility in public discourse. She paused the debate a few times after lawmakers veered off topic, but overall it went smoothly. 

For many Democrats, the bill’s passage out of the chamber marked a significant victory. Democratic Rep. Judy Amabile represents the district in Boulder where the King Soopers shooting occurred. 

“This is going to make a difference. All of the things we’ve done have made a difference,” she said. “We’re going to save lives and we’re going to change the culture.”