Republican advocates of the right to bear arms with high-capacity magazines aim to legalize them again despite Colorado’s latest mass shooting.
On New Year’s Eve, Matthew Riehl ambushed Douglas County sheriff’s deputies, killing Zackari Parrish, a father of two, and wounding six other people before he was shot and killed.
It was the second time in five years that Colorado has been traumatized by a lone madman wielding a military-style rifle and other guns.
James Holmes took a heavier toll in 2012. He killed 12 people and wounded 58 others at an Aurora theater as moviegoers desperately tried to hide or flee.
Both men owned gun magazines capable of holding 100 rounds of ammunition. Colorado lawmakers banned such magazines after the Aurora shooting, but Riehl bought his in Wyoming legally along with a cache of other weapons from a gun store in Laramie.
He fired a barrage of bullets from his apartment bedroom when deputies arrived to talk to him at dawn. The sheriff’s office identified four guns used in the shooting and said that more than 100 rounds were fired, but it would not specify whether or how many rounds came from the high-capacity magazine. A spokesman for the department said the number of rounds fired from each gun is still under investigation.
On Wednesday, the opening day of the 2018 legislative session, Republican Sen. Owen Hill of Colorado Springs and Republican Reps. Lori Saine and Stephen Humphrey, both of Weld County, introduced bills that would overturn the ban. (Democratic leadership in the House immediately sent the bill to a kill committee.) Saine made headlines late last year after she was arrested at Denver International Airport for bringing a loaded gun through security. Prosecutors declined to file charges.
State Sen. Tim Neville, a conservative Republican allied with the hard-line Rocky Mountain Gun Owners group, told The Colorado Independent that if Riehl did use a high-capacity magazine, his ambush demonstrated the uselessness of Colorado’s ban.
“Criminals will do what criminals will do,” he said.
Besides, he added, “no gun guy is going to use a 100-round magazine. They jam.”
Senate Majority Leader Chris Holbert, who represents the district where Parrish was killed, previously sponsored legislation to overturn Colorado’s ban, which limits new gun magazines to 15 rounds. Holbert said he would vote to do so again.
“Punishing law-abiding citizens is not the solution,” he said.
Holbert added, however, that the shooting may have demonstrated flaws in a background check system that is supposed to identify mentally ill purchasers. “That’s something I’d like to understand better,” he said.
The Denver Post has reported that numerous warning signs preceded Riehl’s ambush, including an involuntary stay at a veterans’ hospital in Wyoming, recent threats to police and a failure to take medicine for a bipolar disorder.
Gun control advocates say those signs points to the need for legislation that would give family members a tool to temporarily disarm a loved one in crisis. That tool, an extreme risk protection order, would allow a civil court judge to order a respondent deemed dangerous to surrender his guns for up to one year.
Eileen McCarron, president of the gun control group Colorado CeaseFire, said the Douglas County situation was “screaming out” for crisis intervention.
“It’s awful that family members can’t deal with it when they know somebody is going dangerously off the rails,” she said.
Yet she is pessimistic about the prospects of change, especially during an election year when Republicans hold a slim majority in the Senate. She summed up her expectations of legislative responsiveness in a word: “Nothing.”
She is not giving up, however. She found two senators interested in sponsoring a Colorado extreme risk protection order and hopes Democratic leaders will support them. “It’s not out of the realm of possibility,” she said Wednesday. One of the senators is Aurora’s Rhonda Fields, whose son was gunned down with his fiancée before he could testify in a murder trial.
Ever since the Aurora shooting, Colorado legislators have waged yearly gun battles that typically end in standoffs. Senate Republicans vote to overturn the 15-round limit on gun magazines, only to see their bills die in the House. Gun control measures that make it through a Democratic-controlled House die in the Senate.
This year is shaping up as more of the same. Republicans expect House Democrats to kill efforts to broaden gun rights and contend that a restraining order law would violate constitutional rights to own guns and be protected against unreasonable seizures. Democrats are wary of offending gun owners in an election year that looks troublesome for Republicans nationwide.
In an office bedecked with plaques for championing conservative causes, Sen. Neville said he would worry about any proposal to allow gun seizures prior to a criminal act.
“You have a problem. You have an issue. You get a warrant,” he said.
The Aurora and Douglas County shootings bore some remarkable similarities. Both killers legally bought civilian versions of military rifles along with 100-round ammunition magazines. Both sprayed their victims with unrelenting gunfire. Both showed ample warning signs of impending psychological breakdowns. Yet neither was deemed to be mentally ill before the shootings and both still had access to their weapons at a time of acute psychological crisis.
Democrats responded forcefully to the movie theater massacre, pushing through laws in 2013 that banned new high-capacity magazines and required background checks on all gun sales.
An alliance of gun owners and Republicans rebelled, swiftly and successfully.
Senate President John Morse, a Democrat, was ousted in an expensive recall election. Sen. Angela Giron, a Pueblo Democrat who voted for the new laws, also was recalled. A third Democratic senator, Evie Hudak, stepped down to avoid a recall fight, enabling a Democrat to replace her.
Morse, who was narrowly defeated, blames Democrats in Colorado and nationally for their timidity during and after the recall elections.
“Democrats are afraid of their own shadows,” he said. “To this day, Democrats don’t talk much about guns, even though thousands of people die needlessly each year, including a deputy in Douglas County. This is the Aurora shooting again, but without the same number of casualties. And the casualties were in blue.”
Former House speaker Andrew Romanoff, now president of Mental Health Colorado, sees an opportunity to reduce gun deaths by enforcing existing laws that promise mentally ill Coloradans will not have to endure sometimes months-long waits for treatment. Many substance abusers are not getting help. Mental health professionals are paid less than those treating physical ailments. And the state Division of Insurance hasn’t penalized insurance companies that provide a smaller reimbursement for mental health treatment, Romanoff said. Those factors limit opportunities for intervention, leaving open the possibility that future shooters like Matthew Riehl or James Holmes will strike again.
Said Romanoff: “Those laws are almost entirely useless unless you enforce them.”
The Colorado Independent’s John Herrick contributed to this story.