Interview: Ken Gordon on Guns

Ken Gordon, candidate for secretary of state, was first elected to the Colorado Legislature in 1992. During his tenure, as House minority leader and later Senate majority leader, Gordon was a champion of gun safety legislation-although most of his efforts failed. We talked about why. What follows is an edited version of our conversation.

What inspired you to get involved in the issue of gun safety?

Before Columbine, when I was House Minority Leader, the Republicans in the House wanted to do a number of things. They wanted to give the gun industry immunity from certain lawsuits, which no other industry had. They wanted to preempt local ordinances so that Denver couldn’t have its own specific laws on gun safety. They wanted everybody to be able to carry concealed weapons.

I actually believe people have right to bear arms, but I also thought that Denver should be able to do things relevant to issues it faced, like gangs, that might not apply on the Western Slope. So I organized a rally for reasonable measures to promote gun safety, I think it was a month before Columbine happened. We had about 800 people show up for that, which was huge. It was the most people I’d ever seen rally about guns at the Capitol. And then it was surpassed-after Columbine there were 10,000 people.

These laws passed eventually-in 2000, a bill protecting gun manufacturers from lawsuits; in 2003, both the conceal carry law and the law preempting local ordinances (note: the Colorado Supreme Court recently ruled that Denver can regulate guns after all). What accounts for fact that Legislature passed these laws, despite the Columbine tragedy?

The gun lobby’s influence over the GOP is a microcosm of special interest influence over both parties. There were Republican majorities in the House and the Senate and in the governor was Republican. So the gun lobby had this disproportionate influence.

The year after Columbine I carried a bill to do background checks at gun shows and it died in House Appropriations Committee. (Note: in 2000, Colorado voters overwhelmingly voted in favor of Amendment 22 which requires criminal background checks for people buying guns at gun shows. Gordon helped collect signatures for that initiative.)

I was at some kind of event prior to the death of that bill and a woman came up to me and asked, “You’re carrying that bill? Is it going to pass?” And I said, “No.” She said, “Why that’s terrible. That bill should pass. After Columbine everybody knows where these guns came from.” I said, “Do you know who your state representative is?” She said, “No.” I said, “That’s why.”

Because the gun lobby knows who their state representatives are. They show up, they visit their representatives, they write letters to the editor. When people are ideologically motivated, they are often very motivated, and the people on the other side who don’t do as much don’t carry the same weight.

What role do campaign contributions in gun lobby’s effectiveness?

Not so much. I think they get a lot of their clout honestly by calling and showing up and participating in campaigns and doing what people who care about policy issues do.

What if I told you that at the federal level, the lawmakers who voted in favor of Rep. Marilyn Musgrave’s amendment to defund a federal trigger lock law received more than 14 times as much campaign money and support from the gun lobby than those who don’t?

That wouldn’t surprise me at all. I wonder how much money is contributed at the state level compared to the real estate developers, insurance companies, and so on. Money has an effect but the other things they do too.

If you become secretary of state, what would you do not only to make campaign contribution data accessible, but also digestible? For example, ideological money like the gun lobby’s is often hard to track because you can’t find out by looking at people’s occupation.

I don’t know how you can solve that particular problem that you pointed out. How can you show that somebody contributes for a particular reason?

At the federal level, there are some that attempt to figure it out by looking at who contributes to the NRA’s PAC, and then look at their campaign contributions to others.

That makes some sense. You know, I’ve never taken a PAC contribution. I’m also unique in that regard. That’s because I don’t care for the disproportionate influence that interest groups have. I admire states such as Arizona and Maine that have public financing of elections.

That’s very interesting to me, because in my day job, I work for Public Campaign, which advocates for Clean Elections systems like those in place in Arizona and Maine. With you leaving the legislature, who is taking up the mantle of working for gun safety laws?

I don’t know. The mantle such as it is, you understand, because none of those bills I sponsored passed. I did help collect signatures for [Amendment 22] which required background checks for gun show sales. I thought we should do an initiative on safe storage of guns as well because that’s very possible. I may be involved in that in the future. I can do that from the secretary of state’s office.

Most bloggers have a sense of humor, so let me tell you a story. I knew it was almost impossible to get Republicans to vote for a safe storage bill so the last time I sponsored the bill I tried to make it as ridiculous as possible, so that not to vote for it would be crazy. The bill said that you were guilty for an offense-a misdemeanor-only if a child got in control of your gun and killed another child. You start with a law that requires safe storage of your weapons. I went to the point where I thought: “Who could vote against this?” Well, obviously, they all did.

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