In 2018, the city of Boulder passed an ordinance banning assault weapons, which it defined as “semi-automatic weapons designed with military features to allow rapid spray firing.”
A decision issued by Boulder County District Court Judge Andrew Hartman on March 12 found that ordinance to have violated state law, rendering it powerless unless the city were successful in seeking an appeal.
Senate Majority Leader Steve Fenberg at that time began examining the possibility of eliminating Colorado’s 2003 “preemption” law preventing cities and counties from passing gun regulations that are stricter the state’s.
But less than two weeks after the court decision, a gunman entered a King Soopers grocery store in Boulder and killed 10 people, on March 22. The grocery store is located in Fenberg’s Colorado Senate district.
An arrest affidavit later said the suspect, 21-year-old Ahmad Al Aliwi Alissa of Arvada, had purchased a Ruger AR-556 pistol on March 16. The AR-556 pistol appears to meet the criteria for what is commonly defined as an “assault weapon,” including in Ordinance 8245, the assault weapons ban passed by Boulder City Council.
If Boulder’s ban had still been in place, “I’m not going to pretend like it would have prevented the tragedy that happened,” Fenberg said in an interview Wednesday. Still, he thinks local governments should be able to regulate firearms as they see fit, and he plans to sponsor a bill that would repeal state preemption.
The state statute preempting local firearm bans reads: “A local government may not enact an ordinance, regulation, or other law that prohibits the sale, purchase, or possession of a firearm that a person may lawfully sell, purchase, or possess under state or federal law. Any such ordinance, regulation, or other law enacted by a local government … is void and unenforceable.”
Repealing the preemption law wouldn’t just affect whether assault weapons are banned in certain parts of Colorado. It would allow cities and counties to make their own decisions about things like the possession and sale of high-capacity magazines, and whether concealed weapons should be allowed in government buildings or on college campuses, supporters say.
Any stricter regulations that a city chose to pass “would only apply to that city,” Fenberg said, noting: “It’s not an answer. It’s not a solution. It wouldn’t prevent every tragedy.”
Boulder elected officials “want to pursue the most aggressive action possible that is within our power to make sure that a tragedy like this doesn’t happen again,” Fenberg said later to kick off a virtual town hall Wednesday evening. “We all know that we need federal action … because that is going to be the most effective way to address all of this.”
Democrats look at statewide assault weapons ban
Solving the problem of gun violence means approaching the problem from a number of different angles, Fenberg argued. One potential approach involves going further than just allowing cities to pass their own bans.
With a Democratic majority in the state House and Senate, as well as the governor’s office, Colorado lawmakers could potentially pass a statewide ban on assault weapons.
“The state should pass laws that would best protect Coloradans, one of which I would think would be an assault weapons ban for our state,” Boulder City Council member Rachel Friend said in an interview.
In Friend’s opinion, the Legislature should both repeal preemption and ban assault weapons. Without the preemption repeal, she pointed out, cities including Boulder wouldn’t be able to pass additional gun regulations that were stricter than the state’s.
When it comes to gun policy, “the best-case scenario is going to be federal action. The next best is state,” followed by local ordinances, Friend said. She hopes that Congress will pass its own ban on assault weapons, a prospect that has support from President Joe Biden but seems unlikely to gain enough support in the Senate.
“Personally, I support a state-level assault weapons ban,” Fenberg told Newsline. “It’s a question of whether — is it the right policy right now? What would it look like, what are the nuances, how would we write it?”
Seven states and the District of Columbia currently have bans in place, according to the Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, but the laws vary in terms of how they fit into each state’s statutes and how they are enforced. A federal law banned semiautomatic assault weapons from 1994 to 2004, when it expired.
In emailed comments, Colorado House Minority Leader Hugh McKean, a Loveland Republican, cautioned moving too quickly on legislation.
“While we continue to mourn with the victims and the community of Boulder, in the days following a tragedy such as this, it is not the time to snap to judgment and push through reforms without all of the information yet available,” McKean said. “The legislative process … works best when we listen to all of the stakeholders and give the residents of Colorado ample time to participate.”
In remarks at the White House on Tuesday, Biden called for lawmakers in Congress to ban both assault weapons and high-capacity ammunition magazines. But Republicans in Congress, like some in the state Legislature, have been vehemently opposed to such policies in recent years.
Democrats’ slim advantage in the U.S. Senate, meanwhile, would make such legislation unlikely to pass without elimination of the filibuster — a delay tactic the minority party can use to kill most legislation that doesn’t have at least 60 senators in support.
“The ideal situation is that there is more aggressive action taken on the federal level,” Fenberg added. “Without that, the next best thing is state by state.”
It’s too soon to say whether it would be feasible for the Colorado Legislature to pass its own ban this session, Fenberg said.
Newsline asked the office of Colorado Gov. Jared Polis for comment on whether he would support repeal of preemption or banning assault weapons but had not received a response by the time of publication.
Either policy would certainly be controversial: Firearm regulation is perhaps the least bipartisan issue at the state Legislature. In one recent example of bitter disagreement, outnumbered Republicans in the House prolonged floor debate for nearly 11 hours over a bill that would require gun owners to lock up their firearms — or face criminal charges.
Sen. John Cooke, a Greeley Republican and former Weld County sheriff, expressed skepticism about a statewide assault weapon ban.
“Our hearts are broken,” Cooke said in emailed comments. “What occurred in Boulder on Monday certainly requires that our state take action, which is why Senate Republicans will be pushing for a massive investment in mental health services over the coming days and weeks. We haven’t seen any bill text from Democrats on assault weapons, but I will say that we find bans to be ineffective and that they end up punishing good, law-abiding Coloradans.”
Likewise, Republican Sen. Paul Lundeen of Monument said he wants action in response to the tragedy, but probably not a ban.
“Something is troubled in the collective American psyche — people are hurting — and we need to do all we can to address that,” Lundeen said in an email. “I’ll wait to see the details of a bill before drawing a conclusion, but I’d warn that while blanket bans may seem to be an easy solution, they never solve the root problem. Let’s focus on people — let’s provide them the help they need.”
Amid mourning, push for change
Politicians from the heavily Democratic Boulder say their constituents want them to pass meaningful gun control measures. While they figure out next steps, they’re also taking time to grieve.
In the 18 hours between the shooting and when the victims’ names were announced, Friend said, “It just sort of felt like a collective holding of our breath waiting for horrible news.”
In the coming days, she’ll be “supporting community members any way that I know how or can,” she said, and “trying to support my kids, who are older, but around the age of some of the younger victims.”
The 10 victims announced Tuesday by police spanned generations. The youngest, Denny Stong, was 20; the oldest, Jody Waters, was 65. Besides Stong, two more people were in their early 20s: Neven Stanisic was 23 and Rikki Olds was 25, according to police.
“One of them graduated a year ahead of one of my kids, so it’s just a lot for our community,” Friend said.
During the virtual town hall Wednesday evening, Boulder Mayor Sam Weaver said Biden had called him earlier in the day.
“President Biden sends his love and sympathy to everyone here,” Weaver said. “It is a relief to have a leader at the very top of our government who cares so much about what happened.”
State Rep. Judy Amabile, whose House district includes the King Soopers, told the town hall’s audience that she would support measures at any level of government reducing access to firearms.
“I can see how desperately everybody wants us to act,” Amabile said. “We have to act. This has got to be a moment where we don’t just do what we did at Sandy Hook,” she added, referring to the 2012 mass shooting at a Connecticut elementary school that killed 20 children and six educators. After that shooting, Congress considered but did not pass laws banning assault weapons and mandating universal background checks.
In an interview, Amabile said she supported the proposals to repeal preemption and ban assault weapons. She also stressed the importance of putting more state money into mental health resources, such as hospital beds for people who need competency restorations before standing trial.
“We have to do something about this nexus of mental health and guns, because that is where a lot of the suicides are happening, and that is where a lot of the incidents like this are happening,” she said in reference to the Boulder shooting. “Most people with mental health issues are not violent … but we are not doing enough to treat people.”
While Republicans in the statehouse have uniformly opposed most recent gun-control bills, they’re more open to looking at mental health reforms.
“Before lawmakers rush to promote a political agenda with yet another gun grab, we need to acknowledge that the mental health crisis has been ignored for far too long in our great state,” Rep. Tim Geitner, a Falcon Republican, said in emailed comments. “Now we have the opportunity to comprehensively address mental health issues and social work together to create solutions rather than one side pushing a misguided political agenda.”
Editor’s note: This story was updated at 12:45 p.m. to correct the characterization of Democrats’ advantage in the U.S. Senate.