Obama in Colorado Looks to Bolster Support in Gun Violence Debate

DENVER– President Obama traveled to Colorado Wednesday looking to generate new momentum for the effort in Washington to pass national gun-control laws.

The iconic Western state has been the site of high-profile gun violence in recent years and its citizens have been embroiled in heated debate over gun rights and gun regulations since the state legislative session commenced in January. Despite fierce opposition, lawmakers, leaning on majority opinion, have managed to pass the kind of gun-control bills federal lawmakers have all but given up trying to pass in recent years.

The President spoke at the Denver Police Academy, a converted airplane hangar in Stapleton sited across the street from an elementary school and only five miles from the Aurora movie theater where 12 people were killed and 58 injured in a midnight storm of gunfire last summer.

“Look, this is a state that has suffered the tragedy of two of the worst mass shootings in our history: Fourteen years ago this month at Columbine {high school], and just last year in Aurora. But this is also a state that treasures its Second Amendment rights, a state of proud hunters and sportsmen,” Obama said. “There’s a strong tradition of gun ownership that’s handed down from generation to generation. It’s part of the fabric of people’s lives and they treat gun ownership with reverence and respect.

“So I’m here because I believe there doesn’t have to be a conflict in reconciling these realities. There doesn’t have to be a conflict between protecting our citizens and protecting our Second Amendment rights,” he said.

In addition to the friendly crowd of Democratic politicians and community leaders who typically snag tickets to Obama appearances, the audience here today included dozens of police officers who work on the frontlines of America’s gun war and the family members who worry about their safety.

“It’s something that stresses me out every day, especially with all the craziness in Colorado,” said Shannon Campbell, the wife of Tyrone Campbell, a 21-year Denver Police veteran who works as a detective in the department’s hate crimes unit.

Shannon Campbell is no gun-rights opponent. She owns a Walker PK380 and a Glock handgun, for protection. But she says there are lines that need to be drawn. She supports mandatory background checks, especially for the mentally ill, pedophiles and perpetrators of domestic violence.

“I don’t know how to state this in a way that’s politically correct. But anyone who opposes basic steps to keep guns from getting into the wrong hands is ignorant and irresponsible,” she said.

As comfortable as the Campbells are with firearms, their five-year-old daughter isn’t allowed to play with a squirt gun. Shannon said she’s thankful that, as long as her husband has worked as a cop, he has never had to shoot anyone.

“A lot of people don’t understand that, from the police perspective, having to use a gun can change your life and cause a whole lot of trauma,” she said.

Obama’s visit comes just two weeks after Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper signed bills that require universal background checks for gun buyers and that ban the sale of high-capacity ammunition magazines. The Governor held the signing ceremony at the grave of Buffalo Bill Cody, an icon of the region’s gun-slinging past.

“The good news is Colorado has already chosen to do something about [gun violence],” Obama said.

Still up for debate this legislative session is a bill banning domestic abusers from owning guns. Gun enthusiasts and lobbyists say the legislation merely restates federal regulations already on the books and are opposing the measure.

Among Obama’s invited guests Wednesday was the Rev. Leon Kelly, an NRA member who runs Open Door Youth Gang Alternatives, a Denver ministry that works to keep kids safe from gun violence. Kelly says he has visited too many wounded gunshot victims, counseled too many convicts and presided over too many funerals to keep quiet about gun control. The issue isn’t about the Second Amendment, he said. It’s about basic common sense.

“There’s no need for high-capacity magazines to be on the streets.”

Diane Cooks, the founder and director of Families Against Gun Violence, stood in line to hear the President talk about a reality she knows too well.

“Every time someone is shot, it’s not just that person, but also their families and their communities that are affected.”

Cooks’ son was shot and paralyzed three years ago.

As with most everything that touches on gun control, Wednesday’s event drew barbs. A few Denver police complained that their superiors were allowing the department to be used by the Obama administration for political purposes. A small gathering of off-duty sheriffs’ deputies from counties throughout the state protested at a nearby park. They criticized Obama’s proposed federal gun control plan and Hickenlooper’s new state laws as “un-American.”

The debate over gun laws proposed here this spring has been marked by rancor and disinformation. Talk radio hosts and gun rights groups have mobilized supporters and fueled fear of government intrusion. A lobbyist for the hardline gun-rights group Rocky Mountain Gun Owners was accused of violating ethics rules at the legislature for allegedly threatening a lawmaker at the Capitol, and two Colorado men are now under criminal investigation for leaving threatening messages with legislators who supported gun-control bills.

Bit polls show that the majority of Coloradans support the measures being debated and passed here. Gun deaths in the state have touched thousands of lives and make headlines routinely.

In 2009, the Washington-based Violence Policy Center reported that Colorado was one of 10 states where gun deaths outpaced motor vehicle deaths. That year, the gun-death rate was nearly 12 per 100,000 residents and the car-accident-death rate roughly 11 per 100,000 residents.