Democrats are failing the Boulder massacre test

It is time to act. Pass a statewide assault weapons ban.

Colorado Gov. Jared Polis addresses family and friends of Rikki Lyn Olds during a Celebration of Life service for her at Boulder Valley Christian Church for a Celebration on April 7, 2021, in Boulder. Olds was one of 10 victims killed by a mass shooter while she was working at King Soopers on March 22, 2021. (Helen H. Richardson/The Denver Post)

During a virtual community meeting on March 24 — two days after a gunman armed with an assault weapon slaughtered 10 people at a Boulder grocery store — Colorado Senate Majority Leader Steve Fenberg of Boulder said it was “a time to act.”

Also at the meeting were state Reps. Judy Amabile and Edie Hooton, also of Boulder. Fenberg acknowledged constituent demands that lawmakers enact further gun violence prevention measures. The one measure he cited specifically was “a state-level ban on assault weapons.” 

Then he said, “To the extent that I can, I’ll speak for Edie, Judy and myself, is that we agree. We have to do all of those things that you all have reached out to us about.” He continued: “What I can tell you is that your Boulder legislative local 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.”

Now? An assault weapons ban has been dropped from the conversation.

Democrats control the governor’s office and both chambers of the Legislature. They could enact an assault weapons ban if they had the political will. It appears they do not.

And it gets worse.

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There are plenty of other measures lawmakers should pursue in response to the carnage in Boulder, which is only the latest gun atrocity in a state with a well-earned reputation for mass shootings. But it’s unclear if those measures — such as enacting a waiting period before a gun purchase goes through, and repealing the state’s “preemption” of local gun regulations — will move forward.

What’s the problem?

The short answer is Gov. Jared Polis.

In 2013, when he was a congressman, Polis opposed an effort to revive the federal assault weapons ban, which had been in effect from 1994 to 2004. He is said to maintain that opposition, even after the gunman in Boulder, Polis’ hometown, used an assault weapon, a Ruger AR-556 pistol, to kill the governor’s neighbors. In fact, Polis is said to have let it be known among Democratic leadership at the Capitol that he would veto an assault weapons ban.

Now lawmakers who might be inclined to sponsor gun violence prevention measures are trying to gauge what the governor might sign, if anything. This year they’ve already sent him a bill that would require a gun owner to report a lost or stolen firearm, and they’re still debating a safe gun storage bill. These are useful measures, but they are feeble answers to the challenge Colorado society faces. At the very least, lawmakers should:

A community member kneels to place flowers and mourn near a King Soopers supermarket in Boulder the day after a mass shooting left 10 people dead at the site on March 22, 2021. (Carl Payne for Colorado Newsline)

They should also pass an assault weapons ban.

They already have a model: The Boulder City Council in 2018 made it illegal to sell, possess or transfer assault weapons. The law included a grandfather clause for residents who already possessed such weapons — which meant no government agents were kicking down doors to take anybody’s guns. A court, citing the preemption provision in state statute, struck down the law less than two weeks before last month’s mass shooting. General Assembly lawmakers should take the Boulder ordinance and scale it up to cover the whole state.

Research on the effectiveness of assault weapons bans offers mixed results. Some researchers who have examined the federal ban say it made a positive observable difference. But a widely cited RAND Corporation study found “inconclusive evidence for the effect of assault weapon bans on mass shootings.”

“We don’t think there are great studies available yet to state the effectiveness of assault weapons bans,” the lead RAND researcher told FactCheck.org.

But what the research so far says is only part of the calculation. Assault weapons are often the mass shooter’s favored style of firearm. They are civilian versions of weapons of war, and there is no legitimate reason for them to circulate so widely in society. Opponents of a ban often raise the objection that it’s difficult to define exactly what counts as an “assault weapon.” But this is a distraction. The presence of some gray area should not preclude a ban that would also include clear areas of protection. And the ultimate value of an assault weapons ban is in its contribution to the profound project of cleansing American culture of its corpse-accumulating zeal for guns. Such a project depends on moral fortitude, and it will take perhaps generations to complete. But it is beyond doubt that an assault weapons ban is indispensable if society is ever to shift from its blood-besotted tolerance of elementary schools as killing fields to a state where mass shootings cease to be routine.

This is hardly an eccentric idea, and it’s supported by many prominent officials. Since the Boulder shooting, President Joe Biden has called for such a ban. Biden’s nominee to lead the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives has also advocated for an assault weapons ban. But Colorado Democrats, even after Boulder, are failing to muster the courage to do the right thing.

Every gun conversation at the Capitol is haunted by 2013, when, after Democrats passed universal background checks and a high-capacity magazine ban, state Sens. John Morse and Angela Giron lost recall elections. As much as they might fear an intra-party confrontation with the governor, Democrats also surely fear a gun-nut backlash over new protections.

But they should give greater consideration to the simmering fear experienced by children who today train regularly to respond to school shootings. The fear of congregants at churches that deem it necessary to post armed guards at the doors. The fear of movie-goers in dark theaters. The fear of shoppers in a Boulder King Soopers running for their lives past fallen neighbors on the floor.

Fenberg was right. It is time to act. Failure to do so will be on Colorado Democrats.

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