Colorado Democrats Consider Ban On Assault Weapons After Mass Shooting

Mar 24, 2021
Originally published on March 25, 2021 10:19 am

Colorado could be the next state to consider a ban on "assault-style" weapons, Colorado Public Radio has learned, although discussions are still in the preliminary stages at the state capitol and no legislation has been introduced yet.

Ten people were killed in Monday's mass shooting at a King Soopers grocery store in Boulder and state lawmakers are grappling with what else could be done to prevent these types of shootings from happening. In Colorado, Democrats control the legislative and executive branches of the state government.

"I'm devastated," says Democratic Senate Majority Leader Steve Fenberg. He was born and raised in Boulder and represents the state Senate district where the shooting occurred.

"This is my grocery store. This is blocks from where my wife teaches middle school and her students go on their lunch break," says Fenberg. "It is my job to solve solutions through policy. And that's why it's not too soon. It's frankly too late, especially for these 10 innocent lives."

Fenberg and other Democratic state leaders say they are eager for a federal assault weapons ban. Even though President Biden called for that on Tuesday, Fenberg isn't optimistic Congress will act. The U.S. Senate is currently considering two less sweeping measures.

"There's no question that the real solution has to come from the federal government. A patchwork of laws is better than nothing, but clearly, if someone is intent on causing harm and we have strict regulations in Colorado, somebody can drive an hour and a half to Wyoming," says Fenberg. "The point is to not end gun violence tomorrow, but to prevent some of these tragedies from happening and making it so we can go longer than a week before the next tragedy."

Gun laws Colorado has passed so far

Colorado has already passed several gun laws within the last decade: a high-capacity magazine ban, universal background checks and a so-called "red flag" gun law. Opponents of stricter laws say those measures infringe on Second Amendment rights, placing burdens on law-abiding gun owners, while failing to prevent mass shootings.

Historically, opponents of bans on specific types of weapons have criticized them as unenforceable and often out of touch with the nuances of firearm styles.

"We haven't seen any bill text from Democrats on assault weapons, but I will say that we find bans to be ineffective and that they end up punishing good, law-abiding Coloradans," says Republican Sen. John Cooke, a former sheriff.

According to Cooke, Senate Republicans plan to respond to the Boulder shooting by pushing for a "massive investment" in mental health services.

"Something is troubled in the collective American psyche," says state Sen. Paul Lundeen, a Republican. "People are hurting — and we need to do all we can to address that."

Republican state Rep. Matt Soper says that after the Boulder shooting, he started to hear chatter about a possible bill to ban certain types of guns statewide. He said there would be strong opposition from the GOP.

"We shouldn't have a knee-jerk reaction to these tragedies," he says, warning such a ban would likely be unconstitutional. "The political divide has grown even wider on the issue of guns and there's a lot of emotion involved on both sides."

Colorado's own constitution protects individual gun ownership: "The right of no person to keep and bear arms in defense of his home, person and property, or in aid of the civil power when thereto legally summoned, shall be called in question."

However, the state Supreme Court has upheld past gun laws as legal under that provision.

Two gun bills are making their way through this year's legislative session. One proposal would require safe storage of firearms in many instances and the other would require people to report lost and stolen guns. Both have passed their first chamber, so far on almost entirely on party-line votes.

The Boulder shooting is the largest mass shooting in Colorado since 2012. The state has some of the highest numbers of mass shootings in the country, beginning in 1999 with the attack on Columbine High School.

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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

The gunman accused of killing 10 people at a grocery store in Boulder, Colo., made his first court appearance this morning. He's facing 10 counts of first-degree murder and one count of attempted first-degree murder and was ordered to remain in custody without bail. The mass shooting has left many in the state, including elected officials, navigating grief and asking the same question that's been asked so many times before. What can be done to stop this type of gun violence? Colorado Public Radio's Bente Birkeland has more.

BENTE BIRKELAND, BYLINE: Judy Amabile represents the district where 10 people were killed this week at a King Soopers. And she has personal ties to that particular grocery store. Her son used to work there. She says he was stunned but, in a way, not surprised.

JUDY AMABILE: And that's kind of how I felt, too. Like, oh, my God. It's something that we knew was inevitable. We just didn't know what it would look like or where it would happen.

BIRKELAND: Colorado has passed several firearm restrictions in the last decade, universal background checks and a ban on high-capacity magazines. And now preliminary discussions are underway for a ban on assault-style weapons across the state. Democratic Senate Majority Leader Steve Fenberg represents Boulder. He says it's a step Colorado must take.

STEVE FENBERG: We are repeatedly having these tragedies. Innocent people are being killed while they grocery shop. And nobody expects the federal government to do something about it. That's scary. That - to me, that means something is broken.

BIRKELAND: Other gun bills are already making their way through the legislature. One proposal would require safe storage of firearms. Another would require people to report lost and stolen guns. Democratic Representative Tom Sullivan has made passing tougher gun laws a priority. He ran for office after his son, Alex, was killed in the 2012 Aurora theater shooting.

TOM SULLIVAN: I thought I had an understanding of what grief was about. But when your son, you know, goes to the movies on his birthday, when you're going to see kids went into King Soopers to pick up tonight's dinner and don't come home, that's a whole different thing.

BIRKELAND: Sullivan says even if gun policies can't end all mass shootings, they still save lives. He reminded his colleagues why he wears Alex's leather jacket when he goes to work at the state capitol.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SULLIVAN: It gives me a calming effect. And I also hope that during the course of my day, someone else will notice it. And they'll see this is what gun violence looks like.

BIRKELAND: Opponents say tougher laws won't stop mass shootings and just end up hurting law-abiding gun owners. For Republican Senator Jerry Sonnenberg, the only way to truly address this problem is to turn to a higher power.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JERRY SONNENBERG: I think it's a message that needs said, that God needs to be back in our lives.

BIRKELAND: Republican Representative Richard Holtorf says it's clear the state and country have a mental health crisis.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

RICHARD HOLTORF: We need more outreach in our communities. We need more respect and understanding for our fellow man and our youth.

BIRKELAND: Some Republicans say they want to push massive investment into mental health services. Democrats agree it's a problem. But Speaker of the House Alec Garnett says the country also needs concrete gun laws, not a patchwork approach.

ALEC GARNETT: What makes me most angry is the fact that the federal government hasn't taken the same lead. And the federal government hasn't stepped up and recognized the epidemic.

BIRKELAND: Garnett says he remembers where he was that day back in 1999 when he first learned about Columbine High School. Years later, it was Aurora - now Boulder.

For NPR News, I'm Bente Birkeland in Denver.

(SOUNDBITE OF DAVID GOORICH'S "THE BELIEVER") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.