One of two cannon then on display at the west steps of the Colorado Capitol, on June 22, 2020. (Quentin Young/Colorado Newsline)
The American legislative process depends on the willingness of elected representatives to engage in debate without recourse to force or coercion. Legislative assemblies are battlefields of ideas, not physical power, and they’re established on principles of reason and free expression.
That’s why the presence of armed legislators is antithetical to legislating, and lawmakers should keep their guns out of the Capitol.
This is not an anti-Second Amendment argument — it is a pro-Constitution argument.
This is not a demand that anyone forswear guns — it is to note the hypocrisy of lawmaking while armed.
This is not to deprive elected officials of their right of personal safety — it is to appeal to their role in forming a more perfect Union.
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On March 14, state Rep. Richard Holtorf was inside the Capitol hurrying toward the House chamber for a vote when a handgun fell from his person to the marble floor. The gun did not discharge. He picked it up and carried on.
The incident was witnessed by several people, and it made some fear for their safety.
“This is not responsible gun ownership,” said PWG Colorado, which represents legislative aides and other political workers in the Capitol. “We are deeply concerned about the unsafe work environment this creates for legislative aides and urge House leadership to address this reckless, dangerous behavior.”
House leadership suggested a response was forthcoming.
“This incident was unacceptable and created a dangerous situation for lawmakers, staff, and the public visiting the capitol,” House Speaker Alec Garnett said in a statement. “We are looking at existing laws and rules and what options might exist that would prevent this from happening again.”
This incident was unacceptable and created a dangerous situation for lawmakers, staff, and the public visiting the capitol.
– Colorado House Speaker Alec Garnett
Members of Congress are not allowed to carry firearms onto the floor of the U.S. House or Senate. But members of the Colorado General Assembly are permitted to carry concealed weapons throughout the state Capitol “because of a state law that designates the Capitol as their place of business,” according to CPR, which reports, “A number of legislators have said they do carry inside the building for a variety of reasons, including for self-defense and as a way to protect others in the event of an attack.”
Holtorf is a Republican, but this is a bipartisan issue — more than one Democrat is said to carry a firearm at the Capitol.
Legislative leaders might decide rule changes are in order. But lawmakers, who have the responsibility of establishing the tone and norms of the General Assembly, should not need rules to persuade them to live up to democratic ideals as they perform the people’s business. Debate at the Capitol can be heated. Rhetorical points can be sharp. Emotions can run high. The evolution of a bill can be messy. This is all normal during healthy democratic deliberation.
But the introduction of physical intimidation, which a person can feel even when it’s not the intent of the gun owner, warps the process and erodes the integrity of lawmaking outcomes. For every lawmaker who is comfortable with guns and has handled firearms their whole life there might be another who feels endangered by the presence of a deadly weapon. More than one elected official currently serving at the Colorado Capitol has lost a family member to gun violence.
It was to help eliminate similar democracy-pinching effects that the General Assembly this year passed The Vote Without Fear Act, which, upon receiving a signature from the governor, will prohibit people from openly carrying firearms inside a polling location or vote-counting facility, or within 100 feet of a ballot drop box location. The bill had an equity component, since firearms historically have been used to discourage Black and Brown voters through intimidation from exercising their right to vote.
Members of the General Assembly should be assured of their safety at their place of work, and the Jan. 6 insurrection demonstrated that capitol facilities can be targets of violence. But the armed protection of elected officials is the proper responsibility of law enforcement, whose ranks should be commensurate with every possible threat. Lawmakers in turn, as a show of reverence for the august office they occupy, should be willing, at least as they carry out their legislative duties, to place preservation of peace-promoting democratic ideals above their right to bear arms.
For many years, visitors to the Colorado Capitol who approached the main steps from the west were greeted by a pair of cannon. It was a repellent symbol of violence on a hill overlooking downtown Denver at a place where Coloradans were supposed to gather peacefully to work out their differences. Then cops murdered George Floyd, and in late June 2020 amid anti-police brutality demonstrations, protesters toppled an offensive statue at the Capitol, and the nearby cannon were removed by facility authorities.
Instruments of violence have no place on the Capitol grounds. Neither do they have a place in the Capitol halls.
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