State Sen. Sonya Jaquez Lewis speaks at a gun violence prevention town hall at First Baptist Church in Denver, Feb. 8, 2023. (Kevin Mohatt for Colorado Newsline)
Colorado Democratic lawmakers are planning to bring forward a bill that would make it easier for victims of gun violence to hold firearm manufacturers liable in court.
State Sen. Sonya Jaquez Lewis said she will introduce legislation this session to repeal the state’s industry immunity policy that protects gun sellers and manufacturers from most lawsuits and often makes the plaintiff pay the legal fees of the company.
“We need to make sure that we can take action against firearm stores and businesses who have contributed to this gun-related crime that we see in our communities right now,”Jaquez Lewis, a Boulder Democrat, told a crowded town hall hosted by Giffords on Wednesday night.
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Giffords is a gun safety advocacy nonprofit that was founded by former Arizona U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, who survived a 2011 shooting.
The organization is backing the bill that Jaquez Lewis said will also work to “pull up and enforce” current Colorado firearm policy and legislation Democrats hope to introduce during this session.
She is working on the bill with state Sen. Chris Kolker, a Centennial Democrat, Rep. Javier Mabrey, a Denver Democrat, and Rep. Jennifer Parenti, an Erie Democrat, and said she is waiting on Senate leadership for the timing of introduction.
Federal law — known as the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act — currently prohibits lawsuits against firearm and ammunition manufacturers, dealers and importers. Survivors of a shooting, for example, cannot sue the company that made the gun used in the crime.
In the wake of their daughter’s death during the Aurora theater shooting in 2012, Sandy and Lonnie Phillips sued the company that sold ammunition to the shooter. The suit was dismissed because of PLCAA and the couple was ordered to pay about $200,000 for the ammunition company’s legal fees.
“Right now, the firearm industry in Colorado has immunity that no other businesses have,” Jaquez Lewis said. “I just wish we could repeal the federal law. But if we waited around until Washington got their act together, how bad would that be? That’s why we’re doing it now.”
Whatever we do, we know that we’re going to be attacked.
– Sen. Rhonda Fields
Seventeen states have passed policies that in some way strip legal immunity for the firearm industry, according to Giffords. Colorado, Arkansas and Indiana have provisions that require, in many cases, for the people who bring lawsuits forward to pay the legal fees of the defendant.
Though no bills have been introduced so far this session, legislators say they plan to bring forward multiple other bills to prevent gun violence.
One is a ban on the purchase of assault weapons. Sen. Rhonda Fields, who lost her son to gun violence, said the bill is currently in a “holding pattern” as sponsors work out the kinks in the legislation’s content and language, especially around the definition of what an assault weapon actually is. If the language cannot be determined, the bill likely won’t be introduced, she said.
“We don’t feel we need to rush it, because whatever we do, we know that we’re going to be attacked. People are going to challenge the language in the bill. So if we’re going to have it out there, we want to make sure we’ve thought through all the opposition,” the Aurora Democrat said Wednesday night. “I believe Colorado can do it. We have to have the will and the courage to do it.”
Fields also said she is working on legislation around untraceable ghost guns — homemade firearms that people can make with parts they buy online or 3D print. That bill would require the parts necessary to make a gun functional be serialized.
Sen. Tom Sullivan, a Centennial Democrat who lost his son in the Aurora shooting, spoke about an upcoming bill that would expand the state’s extreme risk protection order law, also known as the “red flag” law. That law allows law enforcement to file a petition to remove a firearm from a potentially dangerous person. Sullivan, as well as other Democrats including Gov. Jared Polis, want that power extended to other categories of people.
“We’re going to move in and make sure we have district attorneys in there and continue to have conversations with medical personnel, with mental health personnel and with educators,” he said. “We need people to actually stand up with us and stop these things from happening.”
He also said he plans to bring forward a proposal to increase the minimum age to 21 to purchase a firearm, which he said Polis plans to support.
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