In Senate offices, dedicated to trying to debate guns like grown-ups
After Monday’s heated magazine-ban hearing, odd-couple Senators Guzman and Cooke talk and listen, rib and sip.
After another tough afternoon at the Capitol debating guns and bullets and the merits of Colorado’s 15-round ammunition magazine ban — their third such debate in as many years — Senators Lucia Guzman and John Cooke sat down late Monday to talk over a few fingers of Stranahan’s Colorado Whiskey.
Cooke, along with Sen. Chris Holbert, introduced Senate Bill 175 this year to repeal the ban, which was passed by Democrats in 2013. Although Monday’s three-and-a-half hour Senate Judiciary Committee hearing didn’t draw the kind of passionate pro-gun crowds that packed similar hearings two years ago, it was at times emotionally wrenching. State sheriffs argued in favor of the repeal and the families of 2012 Aurora theater shooting victims argued against it, recalling the damage done in mere minutes by a shooter wielding a semi-automatic rifle with a 100-round ammunition drum.
For the last three years Guzman, an openly gay Denver Democrat and a pastor, has battled over the mag-ban at Judiciary Committee hearings with Cooke, a straight Greeley Republican and former Weld County Sheriff. He used to come to sit before the bench as a witness. Now he sits behind the bench with Guzman. She always votes to ban high-capacity magazines. Cooke always seeks to underline what he sees as the quixotic, unenforceable nature of the ban, often bringing versions of the prohibited plastic magazines, some jerry-rigged, some bought out of state, to help make his points.
Cooke’s bill passed out of the committee Monday on a party line vote. It’s likely to pass on the Senate floor as well, where a few swing-district Democrats have jumped on board. Then it will probably die in the Democratic-controlled House, as did an identical measure earlier this session.
“Oh, we’ve become very close,” Guzman said, laughing.
“Yeah, we’ve already said a lot, you know, between us and the fencepost,” Cooke added.
Guzman and Cooke are an odd couple. She’s a lefty, dark and slight. He’s a righty, big and white. But they share a particularly dry, candor-driven sense of humor, which they lean on to sustain a conversation that has coursed its way through some of the wildest ideological terrain in the state. Their conversation flows fast back and forth.
“The only gun I ever grew up with was a 4/10 rifle, a tiny, wonderful little rifle,” said Guzman. “We used to shoot doves and squirrels with it. But then my father killed my pet raccoon with it because he bit me — my father didn’t bite me; the raccoon did.”
“But we never had a gun for protection. It was really for hunting food. Things have changed these days.”
“See,” he said. “I come from the perspective of, ‘Who is the government to say you’re only allowed to have 15 rounds to protect yourself and your family?’”
“That makes sense, you come from that,” Guzman said, adding that she sees guns as dangerous machines, like cars can be, that you need training, that some measure of oversight makes sense. “You have to have a license to drive a car, you have to have that. And a gun? That’s a weapon.”
“Yeah, it is,” said Cooke. “But there are far more people killed by cars than by guns.”
“See, I want to see the stats,” challenged Guzman. “See, I don’t know if that’s true or not.”
“In law enforcement, far more cops are killed in car accidents than by felonious means,” said Cooke. “And when I say felonious, I don’t just mean guns.”
“That’s because cops are killing everybody else, and nobody’s left to kill the cops,” Guzman said, clearly jokingly, but referencing a string of tragic headlines about police killings nationally and in Colorado.
“Ouch! Ouch!” said Cooke, one hand to his forehead, one hand to his lap. “I should have worn my cup. That was a low blow. That one hurt.”
“There was another one today — ” said Guzman.
“In Aurora, yeah, but we don’t know the circumstances.”
“I know, but the person is dead and the cop is alive,” said Guzman, hands moving up and down like pans on a scale. “The cop is alive. The person is dead.”
“Yeah, yeah, yeah,” said Cooke, leaning forward. “But, speaking from law enforcement, I’d rather have it that way.”
“But what we saw in Ferguson, that kid didn’t have a gun, and he got shot 12 times,” Guzman said.
Then came silence muddled into the tense, bitten-off beginnings of sentences.
Despite their joshing, it was clear that Guzman’s gallows humor had struck something deep with Cooke, that her reference to current public perceptions about law enforcement were hard for him to accept. It was also clear that both of them were left raw by the realness of the exchange.
They talked about the role mental illness plays in gun violence, about the difficulty of intervening before a mentally disturbed person becomes violent without having to criminalize disease. They agreed that more support for mental health services and even restricting the right to buy a gun on the recommendation of a psychologist would probably be a good thing.
Cooke is a storehouse of knowledge about guns and about law-breakers. He’s clearly speaking sincerely when he says he believes no gun control laws will prevent would-be criminals from accessing firearms in the United States. He cited a Department of Justice report that found more or less exactly that — that 94 percent of those imprisoned for gun-related crimes had illegally acquired the gun they used to commit the offense, or before they had a record.
“There’s a lot to that,” said Guzman. “But his side of the aisle always says, ‘It’s the bad guys. It’s the bad guys.’ I think, at any given time, you, me, John, whomever — if the right things came together, like the perfect storm, I could hurt somebody with a gun. I could do something. But hopefully if I had gone through the checks and balances of getting that gun — meaning, I had to go through a background check, I had to take classes, I had to learn how to be safe with it and I had to keep it safe in a certain place — then the possibility of my hurting somebody would be less.”
Letting the Chips Fall
A few weeks ago, Cooke and Guzman voted together against a Republican bill aimed at curtailing civil forfeiture, or the broad right of authorities to seize property. Many who testified against the bill said limiting civil forfeiture, although popular in the media and among constituents on the left and right, would cripple interstate task-forces that fight human trafficking. Cooke and Guzman were convinced. They knew voting in favor of civil forfeiture would be stepping into a political line of fire — Guzman for appearing too pro-law enforcement; Cooke for appearing too anti-individual rights. You could see them weighing the bill, their faces setting. They explained their reasoning clearly, cast their votes and let the chips fall where they would.
I asked how long they expected to keep talking about the mag-ban. It has been three years. Has anything changed?
“No,” said Cooke. “I don’t think so. This is rooted in emotion, not necessarily facts, or logic, or whatever. I think you hear it on both sides. You hear it on our side, ‘It’s a constitutional right.’ You hear it on the other side, ‘My family was killed.’ It’s emotion. Let’s look at the facts. I don’t think we do. I don’t think we do a good job of looking at the facts.”
Guzman said she is seeing a shift, however slight, for better or worse.
“I do think on this ammunition bill, of any of the [gun bills], there’s some movement,” she said. “Some people on our side are concerned about the magazine deal now, so there’s a little bit of change. We’ve listened. But basically, we care not just about the emotion — it’s almost a Democratic value that families should be safe, that you need to be able to be kept safe from the harm and the injustices that are out there — and all that gets wrapped around weapons.”
The fundamental disagreement on the magazine bill still turns on how lawmakers view safety and protection. Is it more effective to keep a gun for protection or to try to protect yourself from guns? Those main, divergent lines of thinking haven’t changed, even after the legislature exploded in rancor over the gun laws in 2013 and two Democratic senators were recalled from office that summer, when partisan tensions ran as high as anyone at the Capitol can remember.
But on Monday, as the sun dipped below the mountains, there sat Guzman and Cooke, chatting, joking, disagreeing but listening to one another. And that seems new.
[Image via Truth about Guns. Guzman via Twitter; Cooke via Gunwars.]
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