Colorado Democrats unveil gun control bills in aftermath of Boulder shooting

Statewide assault weapons ban absent from trio of proposed laws

Colorado Speaker of the House Alec Garnett, a Denver Democrat, speaks to members of the media during a briefing on April 29, 2021. Democratic lawmakers announced a trio of bills aimed at addressing gun violence, weeks after a mass shooting in Boulder. (Moe Clark/Colorado Newsline)

State Democrats on Thursday announced a trio of bills aimed at addressing gun violence, weeks after the March 22 mass shooting in Boulder. The proposals include removing Colorado’s prohibition on local gun regulations, strengthening background checks, and establishing an office focused on gun violence prevention and intervention.

Not on the menu, at least for now: a statewide assault weapons ban or mandatory waiting periods between buying a gun and picking it up from the store.

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State legislators should ask themselves, “What can we do as policymakers that will save the most lives?” Senate Majority Leader Steve Fenberg said during a Thursday news conference at the Colorado Capitol. He echoed rhetoric used by Gov. Jared Polis to discuss gun regulation. “The bills we are going to introduce today are the most effective steps that Colorado needs to take to save the most lives.”

Colorado’s 2003 “preemption” law prevents cities and counties from passing gun regulations that are stricter than the state’s. In March — days before someone opened fire inside a Boulder King Soopers, killing 10 — a judge found that Boulder’s local ordinance banning assault weapons violated state law. Getting rid of preemption would allow future bans like that one to remain in place.

Before the March 22 shooting, Fenberg had already been looking into getting rid of preemption on gun regulation, he told Newsline last month.

The Boulder shooting added urgency to those plans — with many constituents demanding action from their elected representatives, including Fenberg, whose Senate district includes the grocery store. He will be sponsoring the preemption bill along with Rep. Edie Hooton, another Boulder Democrat.

House Speaker Alec Garnett, a Democrat from Denver, thanked several organizations advocating for stricter gun control policies, which Garnett said had been crucial in crafting the bills: Everytown for Gun Safety, Moms Demand Action, Giffords, Colorado Ceasefire and March for Our Lives.

Rep. Judy Amabile, a Democrat whose Boulder district includes the King Soopers where the shooting occurred, is working on a bill aimed at strengthening background checks. She said her son’s girlfriend works at the King Soopers store — though she was lucky enough not to be there the day of the shooting — and is still traumatized by the event.

Colorado Rep. Judy Amabile, a Boulder Democrat, speaks to members of the media on April 29, 2021, about a trio of bills that aim to curb gun violence in the state. The legislation was introduced just weeks after a shooter killed 10 people in a Boulder grocery store. (Moe Clark/Colorado Newsline)

Amabile and Rep. Steven Woodrow, a Denver Democrat, along with Democratic Sens. Brittany Pettersen of Lakewood and Julie Gonzales of Denver, will sponsor the background checks bill. The legislation would close the so-called Charleston loophole in Colorado, Amabile said.

Under federal law, gun retailers must allow three days for the FBI to process someone’s background check before they can buy a gun. But if the check isn’t completed by then, the retailer is allowed to let them purchase the firearm. Gun-control advocates call this the Charleston loophole, because they say it’s how the perpetrator of a mass shooting in Charleston, South Carolina, was able to obtain the gun he used to kill nine people.

Amabile’s bill would require a firearms dealer to obtain permission before allowing someone to purchase a gun without a background check, and it would prevent people from buying a gun less than five years after a violent misdemeanor conviction.

“Currently, you get a background check and if you have a felony or a mental health flag, you don’t get your gun,” Fenberg explained in an interview. “(This bill) says, if you have a violent misdemeanor in the last five years, you also don’t get a gun.”

A third bill would aim to collect more data on gun-related injuries and deaths to help leaders craft policy.

“We can’t continue to avoid gun violence,” said Sen. Rhonda Fields, an Aurora Democrat who is sponsoring the bill. “And so what we’re planning to do is step up and use our political will … to make progress.”

State Sen. Rhonda Fields, an Aurora Democrat, talks to members of the media on April 29, 2021, about a trio of introduced bills that aim to curb gun violence in the state. Fields’ son, Javad, and his fiancée, Vivian, were shot and killed in 2005. (Moe Clark/Colorado Newsline)

Fields’ bill would create a new office of gun violence prevention within state government, to conduct research and support programs to combat injuries and deaths from firearms. She is working with Rep. Tom Sullivan — a Centennial Democrat whose son died in the 2012 Aurora shooting at a movie theater — on that policy.

Sullivan had been planning to sponsor a bill that would address mandatory waiting periods between buying a gun and picking it up from the store. Aspects of that policy may be incorporated into the background checks bill, he told Newsline Thursday.

Fenberg said he wasn’t sure if provisions on waiting periods would be introduced this session as a separate bill. But Polis is on board with the three proposals introduced Thursday, Fenberg said.

Republicans focus on mental health

In an interview with Colorado Public Radio earlier in April, Polis expressed skepticism about an assault weapons ban — which Fenberg and other Democrats initially said they supported following the Boulder shooting.

“I’m not concerned about the model of the gun at this point,” Polis told CPR’s Ryan Warner on April 10. “Why was (the Boulder shooter) able to buy a weapon when he had a recent conviction for a violent offense?”

To address gun violence, Republicans in the Legislature have encouraged proposals focusing on improving mental health infrastructure rather than enacting gun control.

“A package of legislation usually implies there is legislation for us to review. Currently, we have seen no bills we can review,” Colorado Senate Republicans spokesperson Sage Naumann said in a statement following the Democrats’ news conference. “With that being said, we urge our colleagues to focus on mental health funding … We will review any legislation with an open mind, but we, on principle, do not believe punishing law-abiding Coloradans is the way to solve this problem.”

“If a broken individual makes the decision to enter a firearm store with the intention of purchasing a weapon to murder innocent humans, we have already failed as a society,” Naumann added. “This situation indicates years of missed opportunities, ignored warning signs, etc., and it’s time we focus on how we can help human beings from ever getting to that point.”

Democratic legislators hope the proposed laws will address longstanding community concerns that go beyond the grocery store mass shooting.

“I’m humbled to be able to do this work on behalf of my friends and neighbors, but it’s important to note that our bills also address the larger issue: the everyday gun violence and suicide that tear families apart without so much as a mention on the local news,” Amabile said.

Likewise, Fenberg said the new policies weren’t just about Boulder.

“We should not be writing our policies just on one incident, because most gun deaths are not what happened in Boulder, which is sad to say,” he said.

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