DENVER — Close to 1:00 a.m. on Tuesday, six gun-rights bills had been shot down as expected in the General Assembly’s Democratic-controlled House State Affairs Committee. The crowd trickled out of the committee room to leave only a cluster of lobbyists from hard-charging gun-politics group Rocky Mountain Gun Owners standing alone against the back wall.
The slate of bills under consideration contained proposals aimed at repealing background checks for gun purchases, restrictions on carrying firearms and a ban on high-capacity magazines. The committee also heard a bill that sought to open up public school grounds to armed staff and visitors licensed to carry concealed weapons.
The bills, all sponsored by Republicans, were written in reaction to gun control laws passed in 2013 by Democratic majorities acting in response to mass shootings at the movie theater in Aurora, Colorado, and at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Connecticut.
All or nothing
The night’s long debate spun mostly around the magazine-ban repeal, sponsored by Stephen Humphrey from Severance, and the school bill, sponsored by Patrick Neville from Castle Rock.
The magazine ban, SB 175, has been perhaps the most argued over among the suite of gun bills passed two years ago. It bans all ammunition magazines that contain more than 15 rounds.
The magazine-ban repeal was defeated by a single vote.
Opponents criticized the bill as an “all or nothing” proposal that offered, for example, no alternative-sized magazine — 20 rounds? 30 rounds? — that might be considered. But to supporters that was the attraction of the bill. They said placing any limit on the number of bullets law-abiding Americans can buy would be an equally unconstitutional infringement on fundamental rights.
“We don’t support any limits. That would be just switching to some other arbitrary amount,” said James Bardwell, speaking for Rocky Mountain Gun Owners and the National Association for Gun Rights.
It was an argument intended less to sway lawmakers than to make a point. It is a philosophical and legal argument, and ultimately no match for the arguments coming from the other side, which were emotional and graphic.
Opponents of the so-called high-capacity magazine ban repeal said a gun fitted with more than 15 rounds was useful mainly as a tool of attack and of mass killing.
To make the point, Rep. Max Tyler, D-Lakewood, asked a series of witnesses if they had ever heard of anyone in Colorado using magazines of 15 rounds or more to defend themselves.
He got no answer until a lawyer for Rocky Mountain Gun Owners, Clifford Anderson, recounted his experience as a member of a special forces military unit serving in combat zones overseas.
“We were issued three or four 20-round magazines for our M-16s — and that just wasn’t enough,” he said, his voice wavering with emotion.
Jane Dougherty explained that the body of her sister Mary Sherlach, a school psychologist killed at Sandy Hook, was destroyed by more than ten military-grade bullets fired from a semi-automatic. She thought Anderson’s response ironically made the case against the repeal.
“High capacity magazines have no place in our societies… They are the accoutrements of war,” she said.
The school bill, HB 1168, similarly drew testimony from teachers and the family members of victims killed in Newtown and Aurora and in the notorious 1999 shootings at Columbine High School in Littleton.
“I’m frankly appalled by this proposal,” said Marilyn Hughes, a retired teacher from Longmont. “I don’t see anything here [in the bill] about training or promoting safety. All I see is that it repeals restrictions on bringing guns into schools. Given the tragedies and the news every day of murders and accidents with guns, I absolutely do not believe as a 30-year veteran teacher that this is worth supporting.”
The bill’s sponsor Patrick Neville – one of the “no-compromise” members of the unofficial Rocky Mountain Gun Owners caucus at the Capitol – explained that he is a survivor of the Columbine school shootings and that he believes the only way to meet the threat of an armed mass-murderer is to be equipped to respond in the moment. He said such massacres unfold in minutes, long before authorities can arrive to help.
But he failed to persuade, as well, with moving testimony stacked up high on the other side. His opponents dismissed his bill and the others as products of the gun lobby.
“In fact, this bill comes as no surprise to me,” said Dougherty. “It proposes that the answer to gun violence in the schools is to put more guns into the schools. I’m not surprised, because that’s the gun lobby’s answer.
“It’s a simplified Hollywood response,” she said. “My sister Mary was in a meeting when she heard the sound of the shooting. So what do you think, she would have gone to her locked gun safe, because you can’t leave a gun around for a student to pick up, and she would have got her gun and ran down the hall around the blind corner to the school lobby, firing her gun, Mary the superhero, taking one shot, so there would be no crossfire, and she would have saved the day? Do we really believe that?”
Don Macalady, from Hunters against Gun Violence, also testified against the magazine ban repeal and the school bill.
“You say [the magazine ban] is unenforceable, but a lot of laws are unenforceable — laws regulating the hunting season, laws on lewd public behavior… these are unenforceable. But we don’t see a parade of witnesses every year coming to testify against those laws — and that’s because they’re not supported by the gun lobby.
“Voting to repeal the magazine ban is a vote for a manufacturing industry,” he said.
Republican lawmaker Dan Thurlow from Grand Junction supported the magazine ban repeal, but he broke with Republicans to vote against several of the other bills.
That the bills were all voted down was a preordained conclusion to what has become a ritual at the Colorado Capitol over the last two years. But it still took 12 hours of testimony.
James Winchester, a gun-rights lawyer and former vice president of the Colorado State Shooting Association, explained that many supporters of the Republican bills didn’t show up because they saw this hearing as a pro-forma exercise.
“Law enforcement and citizens are practicing civil disobedience,” he said. “That’s why they’re not here today. They’re simply ignoring the magazine ban.”
That the “gunny” side of the debate seemed thin made the proceedings seem all the more perfunctory. The gun-rights passion that ruled the 2013 legislative session — when the gun-control laws were first passed by majority-party Democrats — fueled conservative politics in the state for more than a year.
Somewhere early in the debate that stretched from Monday into Tuesday, 2013 began to seem like another era.