Election-year gun-rights debate visited the capitol again Monday when the Senate Veteran and Military Affairs Committee considered two bills aimed at firming up citizen rights to use guns at the workplace for defense and in times of state-declared emergencies. After two hours or so of testimony, the bills were killed on party-line votes in the Democrat-controlled committee.
The “Emergency Powers” bill came right before the “Make My Day Better” bill and the hearing came just hours after the state Supreme Court ruled in support of the right for students with gun permits to carry handguns on campuses in Colorado.
In the seven years since Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans and officials traded Keystone Cops communications while chaos devoured the city, the disaster has been a rallying cry for gun-rights advocates and, in Colorado, those rallying cries have translated at the legislature most directly into the Emergency Powers bill. It was sponsored this year in the Senate by Grand Junction Republican Steve King and it hits on popular conservative themes of individual liberty and self reliance.
King, who wears a mustache and the wide swept-back hair of a 1970s pinup cowboy, introduced the bill by quoting a World War II Japanese general.
“You can’t invade America. There’s a rifle behind every blade of grass,” he said. “That is our ethos…
“I don’t have to remind you that we are at war,” he told the members of the committee. “I took an oath to protect everyone in this room and I would gladly lay down my life to do that.”
This year, the bill was sponsored in the House by Majority Leader Amy Stephens, who is engaged in an intense primary election battle against Rep. Marsha Looper. Stephens has never sponsored gun-rights legislation in the past but the Stephens-Looper House District 19 primary is a redder-than-red El Paso County contest that has become the political equivalent of a schoolyard showdown, the two lawmakers hurling accusations of various forms of ideological impurity at one another on mail lists and at district meetings, effectively threatening as each potentially defining issue approaches to whip out their conservative bonafides and compare them for the benefit of the El Paso public and friendly tweeting fellow members of the state GOP caucus.
Indeed, some observers here fear the Stephens-Looper contest will influence positions among Republicans on all variety of legislation this session, particularly on legislation treating hot-button issues such as same-sex civil unions.
Testifying in support of the gun-rights bill in the Senate committee Monday was Dave Kopel, research director at the libertarian/Republican Independence Institute.
According to the tweet account of the hearing’s exchanges published by Colorado Springs Gazette reporter John Schroyer (the state’s most committed thumb-writing dispatchist), Kopel said that, in the event of a terrorist attack, citizens “should be allowed to use their guns without fear of reprisal,” a response to terrorism that may have sounded to opponents of the bill like a deadpan description of the sort of “terrorist attack” anarchists might stage.
Kopel then referenced the Ludlow Massacre, an historical clash in Las Animas County between the National Guard and striking coal miners, which Kopel described as an instance when an armed citizenry could have stood up to abusive power and turned tragedy into triumph. In fact, after the massacre, the miners did arm themselves, and they retaliated against the Guard and the mining companies in a series of deadly skirmishes.
The horror of Ludlow and the frontier-era escalating armed lawlessness it represents is exactly the sort of vision that feeds opposition to the bill.
At the hearing, opponents that included police force representatives argued that state laws already allow Coloradans to use reasonable force to protect their homes and families. They said the bill was unnecessary.
“Common sense dictates that in an emergency situation… guns only make things worse,” a witness from the League of Women Voters said.
Senator Bob Bacon, a Democrat from Fort Collins, said he feared the bill would lead to “some kind of vigilante justice.”
Although the bill is now dead, it’s likely to come back again next year, part of the larger ongoing effort to expand gun-rights (and gun purchases) across the nation.
The Denver-based Independence Institute, for example, is a major backer of gun rights and sent Kopel to Capitol Hill last year to testify in favor of federal legislation that would have established interstate recognition of gun-carry permits.
Kopel delivered equally deadpan testimony on the Hill (pdf) that centered around similar unintentionally ambiguous evocations of standoffs among pistol-packing citizens that he argued would work to prevent violence.
“[By denying an interstate carry permit], the government of the visited state is affirmatively interfering with the visitors’ right to travel in safety and security.
Notably, the need to be prepared for self-defense is especially acute when one is traveling in a different state. At home, one will be familiar with the relative safety of different parts of town at different times of the day. A visitor will not have such familiarity, and could more easily end up in a dangerous, high-crime area.
Similarly, a person who goes out for a walk in her hometown will know that while there may be several ways to get from A to B, one particular route is well-lit, with busy streets, and many business that are open at night, in which one could seek refuge in case of trouble. A visitor will not have such detailed knowledge. Almost anyone who has traveled much can remember instances in which he unexpectedly ended up in a part of some town which was significantly more menacing tha[n] he had expected.
Further, tourists and similar visitors are particularly targeted by criminals. Their style of dress or mannerisms may indicate that they are not familiar with local mores. Because they are not local residents, they are known to be less likely or able to make another trip to testify in court against the criminal, so the criminal has a greater sense of impunity in attacking a tourist.
For the traveler who has been disarmed by the host state, the alternative [is] to stay shut up in one’s hotel room at night, for fear of making a wrong turn down a city block. Or to spend all one’s time solely in a small tourist zone which has a heavy police presence. To be forced to do so is to be deprived of the constitutional right to travel freely and safely throughout the entire United States of America.
Well beyond the borders of pro-gun states like Colorado, these arguments will continue to be made and, in a way that speaks to the political reality of the country today, they will continue to sound as much like arguments in favor of expanded gun rights to those in favor of such expansions as they will sound like arguments against them to people who oppose such expansions.