Give credit to Senate Majority Leader Steve Fenberg and others in the state legislature who, in the wake of the Boulder King Soopers shooting, are trying to actually do something about gun violence.
Doing something is critical, even if it’s not enough. Don’t blame the state legislature for that, though. Doing something as a state is fine and important, and this legislative session could see as many as six gun-violence bills passed into law. But doing something as a nation on gun violence — which we aren’t doing now, which we have rarely done in the past and which, I fear, we won’t be doing any time soon — is what’s necessary.
We are reminded of the need after every mass killing, after Atlanta, after Boulder, after Indianapolis. After the latest, Joe Biden reminded us, yet again, that gun violence “stains our character and pierces the very soul of our nation.”
The sad truth is that mass shootings make up a small percentage of gun violence and gun deaths. But if we can’t move to take on gun violence after mass killings, what hope is there for Republicans in Congress to be moved to action by everyday gun deaths, everyday gun suicides, everyday gun tragedies?
Still, doing nothing in Colorado after Boulder was not an option, even if some things remain out of reach. In the coming gun package, for example, there won’t be an attempt to ban assault-style rifles, although I’m sure polling would suggest a majority of Coloradans support a ban. Polls show a majority of Americans do.
The depressing fact is that passing an assault-style weapons ban is very difficult politically, even with large Democratic majorities in the Colorado statehouse. It’s also true that even if a ban were passed, it would still be easy enough to cross a state line to buy your very own made-to-look-so-cool-if-you-think-that-kind-of-thing-is-cool assault-style weapon. These weapons — there are about 15 to 20 million in American hands, depending how you define assault weapon — are very profitable in the all-too-profitable gun industry.
As Fenberg told me, the real question that he and others in the legislature have been struggling with since the Boulder shooting is twofold: “What would save the most lives and what is doable.”
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There were three bills — two of them passed, one on gun storage and the other on a requirement to report lost or stolen guns — that were introduced before the Boulder assault. The third, which is still making its way through the legislature, would strengthen a 2013 law that required those charged with domestic violence to give up their guns. The law is apparently rarely enforced, even though statistics show that abusers are five times more likely to kill their victims if they have access to a gun.
Now it looks as if there will be a package of three more bills, expected to be introduced next week. This is, as Fenberg explained, all part of a larger framework for addressing gun violence in the state.
The most important new piece may be preemption. As the law stands today, localities are prevented from passing stricter gun laws than those on the state books. This is an interesting argument. You hear all the time from Republicans that laws of various stripes passed in the legislature may make sense in cities like Denver but not in the rural parts of the state. You can make the exact opposite argument here — that statewide gun regulations are not sufficient for urban areas.
As you may remember, Boulder had an assault-style weapons ban that was overturned in court 10 days before the King Soopers assault. The law was never enforced, and Fenberg, whose district includes the King Soopers, admits he’s under no illusion that if the law had been in place it would have prevented the shooting.
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But there are laws that localities could pass that would matter. A few examples: extending waiting periods, raising age limits for purchasing certain kinds of guns, restricting open carry, and yes, banning assault-style weapons, too. In a strange quirk of the law, Denver actually has certain gun laws — including a ban on assault-style guns — that are stricter than state law. When the state preemption law was passed in 2003, Denver sought a ruling on what that meant for the city. Denver won a lower-court ruling, and when the case got to the Supreme Court, the vote was tied, meaning Denver’s laws were allowed to stand, but that the ruling — and here’s where it gets really strange — could not be used as precedent. That’s why Boulder’s law was struck down.
Interestingly, Denver’s winning argument was that it would know better how to deal with gun violence within its city limits than the state would — kind of the Old West notion of guns being banned within city limits. Denver has lost some court battles on guns over the years. Eliminating the preemption law on guns would change that.
Another bill would prohibit anyone convicted of certain violent misdemeanors from purchasing a gun in Colorado. The amount of time the purchase ban would be in place and the type of misdemeanor are still being negotiated. There are already laws in place dealing with misdemeanors in cases of domestic violence.
The Boulder shooter had a third-degree misdemeanor assault charge on his record for attacking a classmate when he was in high school. He was still legally able to buy a high-powered AR-556 pistol just days before the shooting. Presumably the new law, if passed, would have prohibited the sale during a background check.
On the topic of background checks, the legislature would also address the so-called Charleston loophole — in which a buyer can legally purchase a gun if the background check hasn’t been completed in the required three business days.
And then there is the red flag law, which failed so miserably in Indiana because even though the FedEx shooter had a shotgun taken away from him by police after his mother warned he might do himself or others harm, his case never went to court. The Indianapolis prosecutor has said he was concerned that a judge might not uphold the recommendation and that the shotgun, already removed, would have to be returned. And so the law didn’t apply when the shooter went to buy more guns for the FedEx killings.
We have a red flag law in Colorado, even if there are, absurdly, so-called “sanctuary counties” that refuse to enforce it, but a new bill would provide funding to educate more people on the law and how it works.
“We need old-fashioned education and building awareness to do the long-term work in preventing gun violence,” Fenberg said. “In theory, the family of the Boulder shooter could have used the red flag law. I don’t know if they knew about the law or, if they did, whether they’d have used it, but we need to raise awareness.”
We could go on. And there’s always next year. We’ve seen, sadly, how laws can be circumvented, including, say, the size of magazines or how a pistol, like the Ruger AR-556, can act much like a rifle.
What is interesting this time around on gun laws, though, is that the opposition, while still strong, is not nearly as overwrought as it was in 2013. After the gun laws passed that year, following the Aurora theater shooting, there was a recall movement that cost two legislators their jobs.
In 2019, Republicans tried again, this time going after Rep. Tom Sullivan —whose son Alex was murdered in the theater shooting — because he had the nerve to support tougher laws on gun violence. The recall went nowhere. It was a huge embarrassment for the GOP, much like the recent failed recalls of Jared Polis. On the other hand, and this is very much worth noting, the person who led the recall push against Sullivan, Kristi Burton Brown, is now the Colorado Republican Party chair.
I wouldn’t expect recalls this time. State Republicans, who have been crushed in recent elections, have bigger problems. What we can expect, I think, at least in Colorado, is some small measure of progress.
Mike Littwin has been a columnist for too many years to count. He has covered Dr. J, four presidential inaugurations, six national conventions and countless brain-numbing speeches in the New Hampshire and Iowa snow.
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