Here’s what you should know about gun laws in Colorado
State lawmakers responded to the Boulder King Soopers massacre with a package of reforms designed to make it harder for certain people to obtain firearms
Community members created a memorial at the site of the March 22, 2021, mass shooting at a Boulder King Soopers store, seen on April 24, 2021. (Quentin Young/Colorado Newsline)
In data point after data point, gun violence is historically high in Colorado.
In 2020, a near-record number of people killed themselves with a gun, more people were murdered with a gun than any prior year on record, and amid protests against police violence and racial injustice, Colorado climbed to fifth in the nation for the most people shot and killed by police.
Then came the March 22 King Soopers massacre in south Boulder, a mass shooting reminiscent of the 1999 Columbine High School and 2012 Aurora theater tragedies. The day after, state lawmakers lamented its familiarity.
They can also call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.
“I urge all of us to be thinking about what we can be doing,” said Rep. Judy Amabile, a Democrat from Boulder. “Otherwise, we’ll be back here next week having another moment of silence.”
In the next few months, lawmakers approved more gun reforms than in any year since 2013, when they passed universal background checks and a large-capacity magazine ban. The 2013 reforms prompted a backlash from the gun lobby and led to the recall of two state senators, Angela Giron of Pueblo and John Morse of Colorado Springs. Legislators didn’t change gun laws until 2019, when they passed a “red flag” measure allowing law enforcement to take guns away from people who might use the weapons to harm someone.
Last week, Gov. Jared Polis joined lawmakers, advocates and loved ones of victims of gun violence at the state Capitol to sign into law a package of reforms aimed at preventing certain people from getting their hands on guns. Now that the dust has settled on the historic year for more, stricter gun laws, here’s what you should know about Colorado’s gun laws.
Who can buy a gun in Colorado?
To buy a long gun, such as the AR-15 rifle, or a shotgun, you have to be 18 years old. To buy a handgun — the most common weapon used to kill people in Colorado, according to the Colorado Bureau of Investigation — you have to be 21 years old.
You also have to pass a criminal history background check. Thanks to Colorado's 2013 universal background checks law, this applies to purchases from a gun shop, a gun show or a stranger on Craigslist.
With some exceptions, federal law prohibits selling a gun to anyone who checks any of the following boxes:
- Conviction or indictment for a crime punishable up to a year in prison
- Fugitive status
- Addiction to certain drugs
- Lack of documentation to live in the U.S.
- Certain mental health issues
- Dishonorable discharge from the military
- Conviction for domestic violence
- Subject to a restraining order
The restrictions still allowed the King Soopers gunman to allegedly buy an AR-556 pistol despite having pleaded guilty in 2017 to a third-degree misdemeanor assault charge for punching an Arvada West High School classmate.
New this year, lawmakers responded by passing a law expanding background check requirements to prohibit the gun sales to anyone convicted in the last five years of any of the following misdemeanor offenses:
- Third-degree assault
- Bias-motivated crime
- Child abuse
- Crime against an at-risk person
- Cruelty to animals
- Possession of an illegal weapon
- Sexual assault and unlawful sexual contact
- Unlawfully providing a firearm other than a handgun to a juvenile
- Violation of a protection order
The new Colorado law also closed the "Charleston loophole," which under federal law allows a gun seller to hand over a gun prior to a completed background check if the background check takes more than three business days. Colorado law now requires the Colorado Bureau of Investigation to complete the background check before the sale of a gun.
The loophole allowed a white supremicist to buy a gun that, in 2015, he used to kill nine people in a historically Black church in Charleston, S.C. Pro-gun groups support the loophole to prevent delays for owning a gun.
It’s unclear how many people in Colorado took home guns without a completed background check prior to the new requirements. Gun sellers in Colorado are not required to report such information.
Background checks generally take a few minutes, according to CBI data. But in April, the average turnaround time for an internet background check was nearly four days, raising the possibility that some of the 44,432 attempted or complete transactions that month resulted in some people who would have failed a background check taking home a gun.
That month, CBI denied 1,145 sales, or about 2.6% of all the background checks.
What guns can I buy in Colorado?
Colorado's approximate 2,193 licensed gun dealers sell a range of Glocks, revolvers, pistols, shotguns and rifles. With some exceptions, federal law prohibits the sale of “dangerous” weapons, such as machine guns, and some accessories, such as silencers.
In 2013, Colorado lawmakers banned magazines with more than 15 rounds. This was a response to the 2012 Aurora movie theater shooting in which the gunman killed 12 people using a semiautomatic rifle with a 100-round drum.
Despite the ban, prosecutors in the King Soopers shooting case charged the suspect for possession of a magazine larger than 15 rounds. Prosecutors declined to comment on how the gunman obtained the illegal large-capacity magazines. In 2019, 9News reported gun dealers have been selling kits to assemble large-capacity magazines. The Colorado attorney general’s office said the kits were illegal. County sheriff’s are responsible for enforcing the ban.
Separately, the U.S. Justice Department issued a rule in 2018 that bans the sale of bump stocks, which are attachments allowing people to fire multiple shots from a semiautomatic rifle with one pull of the trigger. The decision came after the 2017 Las Vegas shooting in which the gunman killed 60 people attending a music festival using a rifle modified with a bump stock.
In June, the Justice Department announced it plans to regulate braces, which are accessories used to make pistols fire more accurately. The King Soopers gunman allegedly used a brace on a AR-556 semiautomatic pistol, making it operate more like a rifle.
The Biden administration is also seeking to regulate “ghost guns,” weapons people construct by purchasing individual parts. The guns can be purchased and assembled without completing a background check and don’t have serial numbers, making the guns impossible to trace. In 2019, Denver7 reported the popularity of these weapons was on the rise in Colorado.
What are the rules for owning a gun?
Colorado gun owners are not required to register their guns and can openly carry the guns across the state except on certain public properties, businesses that prohibit guns, K-12 schools, college campuses, and Denver, which enacted an open carry ban prior to the passage of a pro-gun 2003 state law prohibiting such restrictions.
To concealed carry, the gun owner needs a permit from a county sheriff’s office. Under Colorado law, sheriffs can issue five-year permits to anyone who completes a gun safety course unless the applicant is not a resident, younger than 21 years old or has a mental illness or addiction to drugs or alcohol.
Concealed carry is generally allowed on college campuses. And while most people are prohibited from bringing guns into the state Capitol, some lawmakers do.
New this year, however, local governments can now prohibit concealed carry of handguns in certain buildings and properties under a new law giving local government more control over gun restrictions.
Also new this year, lawmakers passed laws requiring gun owners to report lost or stolen guns and to store their guns in a locked safe, among other “safe storage” options. Beginning July 1, licenced gun dealers must provide a locking device for each gun sold.
What about protections for gun owners?
The state doesn’t have a “stand your ground” law, which provides legal immunity to people who shoot and kill someone as a means of self defense. Instead, Colorado’s 1985 “make my day” law protects people who shoot and kill intruders. These legal protections only apply when the occupant of the dwelling is inside the home.
In March, the Colorado Supreme Court agreed to hear a case that could redefine the limits of the law after an incident in 2017 in which a renter in Colorado Springs shot and killed a man, who was experiencing homelessess, in the basement of his apartment.
When can someone take away my guns?
Under Colorado's red flag law, if a gun owner is considered a threat to themselves or others, family, household members and law enforcement officers can petition a judge to order law enforcement to confiscate the person’s guns.
Since Jan. 1, 2020, when the law took effect, people have requested 156 emergency risk protection orders, according to April 2021 data from the Colorado Judicial Branch. Judges in 18 counties have granted 62 petitions.
The Colorado Judicial Branch does not maintain a record of how many court orders are served by law enforcement agencies. More than half of Colorado’s 64 counties have passed “Second Amendment sanctuary” resolutions indicating they don’t want the law to be enforced, according to 9News.
New this year, lawmakers passed a law that makes it easier to enforce an existing law to take away guns from people under a protection order for domestic abuse.
After decades of intense lobbying by gun rights groups, gun control groups now have the upper hand at the Colorado Capitol.
According to an analysis by The Colorado Sun, gun control groups are now outspending gun rights groups on political campaigns and lobbying at the state Legislature.
And with Democrats in control, lawmakers will block any repeated attempts by Republicans to allow concealed carry on K-12 school grounds, abolish concealed carry permits, or repeal the state’s large-capacity magazine ban.
More likely in the years ahead, Democrats may pass a waiting period for gun sales. The policy is designed to prevent impulsive acts of gun violence, such as suicide. Earlier this year, Democrats abandoned this kind of legislation, in part to focus on other measures.
Gun control advocates also want an assault-style weapons ban in order to prohibit people from buying rifles like the AR-15. Democrats were unable to unite behind such a ban this year. Some said a federal ban is more effective and that the politically charged legislation would divert attention from other measures.
New this year, however, Democrats amended a 2003 law to allow local governments to pass gun ordinances more restrictive than state gun laws. This will allow Boulder to enforce its assault weapons ban, which was suspended on March 12 after a Boulder District Court Judge ruled that the ordinance conflicted with state law.
In Colorado, tragedies have often inspired reform. But this routine could change.
New this year, Democrats passed a law creating the Office of Gun Violence Prevention, which will be required to maintain data and research on gun violence in Colorado and may provide grants aimed at reducing gun violence and the trauma associated with it. The legislation is one indication lawmakers are interested in understanding the root causes of gun deaths.
“Every day hundreds of people lose their lives as the result of a gun,” Rep. Jennifer Bacon, a Democrat from northeast Denver who sponsored the bill, said during a bill signing ceremony at the state Capitol last week. “The pain of that has begun to manifest in our bodies — the daily anxiety, the daily fear.”
Bacon added, “This is something that we will no longer tolerate.”
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