The tide has turned

Colorado pushing progressive gun laws in the face of another mass shooting


Days after lawmakers began debating a package of firearm regulation bills at the Colorado Capitol, a Colorado Springs man walked into a birthday party in the early hours of May 9 with a gun, shooting six adults before turning the weapon on himself. All were killed. According to police, the suspect — the boyfriend of one of the victims — was upset that he wasn’t invited to the family gathering. The latest mass shooting in the state came less than two months after 10 people were killed at the Table Mesa King Soopers in Boulder, largely seen as the impetus for the proposed legislation. 

“We weren’t necessarily planning to do more this year when it comes to gun bills,” says state Sen. Steven Fenberg, who represents Boulder. “These three bills really did in the end come about as a conversation and due to the Boulder shooting.”

The proposed policies would allow local jurisdictions to implement their own gun regulations, address loopholes in the current background check process and prevent those with a violent past from purchasing guns, and create an Office of Gun Violence Prevention under the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment. The package comes on the heels of other recently enacted laws that restrict how firearms are stored and sold, and create reporting requirements for lost or stolen guns. 

Mass shootings often act as a galvanizing force to pass gun legislation, at least at the state level like what happened in 2013 after the Aurora theater shooting. While some may argue that laws are irrelevant because they didn’t stop a massacre like the one in Boulder from happening, others assert that what happened in Boulder only proves more needs to be done. Likewise, such events give an opening for lawmakers to pass policies aimed at everyday gun violence as well, as experts continuously warn of the public health and safety implications of not addressing the issue.  

“There’s something visceral and horrific about mass shootings, and they destabilize our personal feeling of safety, and they tear up communities in a way that’s different than the same number of individual deaths over some period of time do,” says Rachel Friend, Boulder City Council member who’s worked in gun safety advocacy for years. “And both types of gun violence need to be addressed and prevented wherever possible.” 

She says Colorado is particularly primed to pass not only the proposed laws, but also additional measures, as the Democrat majority in the Capitol, with the backing of a Democratic governor, allows action previously out of reach under a split government. It’s a sign of an evolving population when it comes to many issues including gun policy, especially in suburban areas. 

“The fact that we have any gun bills moving through in our state means the tide has turned,” Friend says.

  “Colorado is a state in rapid evolution with regard to gun policy,” says Garen Wintemute, a firearm violence researcher in California and emergency room doctor who helped create the public health approach to violence prevention. He says Colorado is an outlier among other Western states in the laws it already has, citing 2019’s extreme risk protection order, or red flag, law, and current use of background checks, which passed in 2013. The laws currently under consideration at the Capitol, he says, only add to this. 

 “Colorado is unique in the country, at the moment, in the pace of the progress it’s making,” he says. “It’s very rapidly moving toward a more robust public health-based regime of education and regulation. … I think lots of readers would not equate that with progress, but I am driven by the data and the data suggests that’s progress.”

What’s obviously missing in the Democrats’ proposal is a state-wide assault weapons ban, long advocated for by gun violence prevention activists in Boulder and throughout the state. (BW will explore the history and efficacy of such bans in a future story.) That’s in large part, Fenberg and others say, because it would have dominated the conversation, and ran the risk of failing, something that hasn’t happened to any gun bill state Democrats have run in recent years. The proposed package of laws, on the other hand, are all but guaranteed to pass this year. 

Plus, Fenberg adds, “The gun lobby is incredibly ineffective and almost non-existent at the Capitol.”

For example, all proposed legislation related to loosening firearm restrictions in the state never made it out of committee hearings this year. 

“I don’t disagree with the impatience and the frustration,” Fenberg says of what activists say is slow movement on gun violence prevention. “But if you take a step back, we have done more in the last five or seven years than probably any state.”

So what’s in the proposed laws?

In announcing the legislation at a press conference, Fenberg stated the policy proposals are, “The most effective steps that Colorado needs to take to save the most lives.”

He’s specifically sponsoring Senate Bill 256, which would end the state’s preemption ban, which prevents local ordinances that prohibit the sale or possession of firearms deemed legal by state or federal law. And it was the main reason given by a district judge when ruling against Boulder’s 2018 assault weapons ban just weeks before the Boulder shooting. 

Fenberg had already begun looking at the preemption issue but had no plans to address it this legislative session, that is until the events of March 22. As a prime sponsor, he says the proposed law invalidating preemption would allow local jurisdictions, as well as universities and special districts, to pass their own gun regulations. 

“I can’t point to specific policies that I know are going to get adopted, but the way I see it is there’s no reason why the state should prohibit the local government from doing what they need to do to keep their citizens safe,” Fenberg says. 

It could take any form: increased background checks, purchasing waiting period, new licensing requirements, increasing age limits and prohibiting open and concealed carry in certain areas like schools, museums and other crowded public places. 

“I think this is something that we can do that then allows local governments to almost sort of be like laboratories of good policies that other cities can then adopt or the state can adopt,” he says. 

Friend testified in support of the bill at the Capitol on Tuesday, May 11, as did Dawn Reinfeld of the local advocacy organization Blue Rising Together. 

“I would of course rather a statewide assault weapons ban, but [SB 256] gives communities the opportunity to have laws that reflect their cultural values,” Reinfeld says. “It’s moving us in the right direction but it’s not where we need to be.”  

While almost certain to pass, SB 256 is also likely to face immediate legal challenges from Rocky Mountain Gun Owners (RMGO), a gun rights lobbying group that championed the preemption bill, which passed in 2003 as a flurry of similar laws were instituted across the country, backed by the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), industry partners and the NRA. 

“It’s arguably the most dangerous,” says RMGO Executive Director Taylor Rhodes. “It creates essentially an unmanageable roadmap for people who are trying to exercise their Second Amendment rights.” 

What’s legal in one jurisdiction could be illegal in another, with nothing to inform gun owners of different laws, Rhodes argues, adding that RMGO is already looking at filing lawsuits as soon it’s signed into law. RMGO also testified against the other two laws currently under consideration. 

House Bill 1298 will ensure that no one is given possession of a firearm before their background check is completed, no matter how long that takes and despite a statewide backlog. It will also prevent people with certain violent misdemeanor convictions from purchasing a gun for five years, whereas now federal law only stops those with felony or some domestic violence misdemeanor convictions. Such legislation has been in discussion for a few years, as there is a growing school of thought that suggests regulating who has access to purchasing firearms can be more effective than what firearms are permitted or not.  

This law was first floated in 2019, the same year researchers in the Journal of General Internal Medicine found that bans on violent offenders purchasing guns are one of the top three effective measures to reduce overall homicide rates. But ultimately, the red flag law dominated the conversation that year, leaving little room for other proposals on the issue. The circumstances that led to the Boulder shooting, primarily that the alleged shooter had a prior violent misdemeanor conviction, renewed the push for such a policy in Colorado. 

“I think that one is likely to result in lives saved in a big way,” Fenberg says. “I mean, the person in the Boulder shooting wouldn’t have been able to purchase the gun that he purchased.” 

The issue of closing loopholes in the background check system is also key, says bill sponsor Rep. Judy Amabile, who represents South Boulder. Although new to the Capitol this year, Amabile became involved in politics after she worked tirelessly to prevent one of her sons from purchasing a gun while he was suicidal, including pleading with a gun store owner not to give him one after she noticed a credit card charge for a background check. 

“It’s hard to measure at the end of the day, but there’s data that shows that the incidence of gun violence goes down when you expand the background checks and expand the list of offenses that you have to wait (for) to purchase a gun,” Amabile says. 

For example, in the late 1990s, Wintemute, who testified virtually in support of the Colorado bill last week, and his colleagues compared purchasers of handguns with a prior criminal record with those who don’t in California. 

“People with a prior conviction for a violent misdemeanor were nine times as likely to be arrested subsequently for murder, rape, robbery or aggravated assault,” Wintemute says. “And if they have two or more such convictions that nine went to 15. … That’s a 1500% increase. It’s not a small change.” 

When California passed a sweeping law preventing those with violent misdemeanor convictions from purchasing or possessing firearms, Wintemute and his team ran another study comparing the results of those who were able to get guns previously and those who the new law prohibited access to a firearm. They found the rate of arrest for violent or firearm-related crimes dropped by 25%. 

“The effect was specific to the types of crimes that policy change was directed at, which that’s still not proof, but it allows you to say, yeah, a 25% reduction from administrative procedures, policy change in an outcome like murder, rape, robbery, agg[ravated] assault — that’s a big deal,” he says. 

When it comes to the offenses that will be covered in the Colorado law, Wintemute says his previous studies have covered violent misdemeanors in general, but he’s currently working on an analysis that looks at individual offenses. 

This research is a product of Wintemute’s work at the Firearm Violence Research Center at the University of California-Davis, a similar organization to what’s being proposed in Colorado under House Bill 1299. Although, the Colorado Office of Gun Violence Prevention will be a state-run public education effort, whereas California’s emphasizes research more, Wintemute says. There are similar efforts in Massachusetts and Washington, which launched its Office of Firearm Safety and Violence Prevention in 2020. 

With a $3 million price tag, the newly created office will be tasked with increasing awareness of state and federal gun laws and violence prevention resources, and, if there’s enough funding, become a grant-making agency to fund community organizations working in gun violence prevention. 

“I think it would be worth spending some of that money on doing some of the basic research in Colorado, because I can tell you all about California, but… you need local answers,” he says. 

Given the data that exists, research could be done for very little money to better inform policy makers about what could be effective measures against gun violence “without affecting people who aren’t part of the problem,” he says. 

This could be key, as federal funding for research on the subject has long been lacking. Rhodes from RMGO says his organization also supports funding research, if it’s objective — something he doesn’t think will happen under the new office, given that its leaders will be political appointees. And for now, while Democrats control the state, Rhodes sees the proposed Office of Gun Violence Prevention as “nothing more than state-funded lobbying for gun control.” 

For bill sponsor Rep. Tom Sullivan, the Aurora Democrat known for his work on gun violence prevention after losing his son in the 2012 Aurora movie theater shooting, the newly created office will also be a repository of state-wide data on laws already on the books.  

“The only way we can find solutions is by having the proper data,” he says, adding that his office often finds it difficult to track down information about the use of 2019’s red flag law, which he also sponsored.  

“It makes sense,” he says. “So that there’s a clearing house, so everything can come in into one place.”

More to come

For Sullivan, this package of proposed legislation, building off the laws he and others have already helped pass in previous sessions, is only the beginning, as continual gun violence and mass shootings prove more needs to be done. 

“When you’re working as much as you can and, you know, six people are murdered at a birthday party, you need to do more, you need to keep at it,” Sullivan says, referencing the May 9 shooting in Colorado Springs. 

He says he has plans in future legislative sessions to introduce bills regarding waiting periods and raising the age limit for purchasing weapons statewide, among other ideas, some relating to domestic violence. And while he’d like to see some of his Republican colleagues get on board with some of these proposals, he says, the statewide effort to build a strong majority in support of gun regulation is paying off. In his estimation, the legislature is about a session (year) or two away from normalizing gun violence prevention policy to such a degree that large press conferences and public outreach campaigns won’t be necessary. 

“Just like I think we’ve got 15 mental health bills on the board this year — we didn’t have a press conference for that because that’s what people know we’re going to do,” he says. “Just like we talk about transportation, just like we talk about education, just like we talk about climate and just like we talk about any of the big issues in the state of Colorado, every single year now we’re going to talk about gun violence prevention.” 

Still, Republicans in the State House present a major barrier to passing any sort of bipartisan legislation on gun violence prevention, and RMGO promises to continue challenging what it sees as restrictive gun policies, holding policy makers accountable. But the threat of recall of state legislators over gun legislation is a distant memory, Sullivan says, as an effort against him in 2019 failed almost before it could begin. 

And for Boulder’s legislators, political will is not an issue, and they will continue to work on policies in the hopes of preventing gun violence across the state. It’s the nexus between mental health and gun violence that Amabile intends to explore in future legislation given the severe lack of mental health resources that has led to delays in mental health appointments and a shortage of mental health hospital beds statewide. As she says: “I would like for us to be looking at that intersection and what can we do in terms of mental health that will make it easier to get an appointment with a psychiatrist than it is to go buy a gun.”  

And as mass shootings and gun violence continue throughout society, more and more legislators will be forced to reckon with combatting it, as it hits closer and closer to home. As Sullivan says, his colleagues in Boulder and Colorado Springs will be reminded of the issue every time they drive by the Table Mesa Shopping Center or the Canterbury Mobile Home Park in Colorado Springs or any other location impacted by gun violence. 

“All of a sudden I’m pretty immersed in gun policy,” Fenberg admits. “Not that I didn’t have interest before, but it wasn’t my issue. And I feel like now it is.”  

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