UPDATE: This story has been updated to reflect Erik Underwood’s position on a 2013 Colorado gun law.
Following the slaughter of 17 people at a Florida high school, Democrats running for governor in Colorado are making gun laws an issue in a race where policy divisions among the wide field of candidates are few.
One gubernatorial hopeful already changing course is Congressman Jared Polis, who in 2013 dismissed a proposed federal law that would have banned more than 100 different assault-style weapons, saying doing so would “make it harder for Colorado families to defend themselves and also interfere with the recreational use of guns by law-abiding Coloradans.”
Five years and more mass shootings later, Polis this week became an original sponsor of a new bill in Congress to ban assault-style weapons that include AR-15s, AK-47s, and shotguns with pistol grips or revolving cylinders, among many others.
“As our communities have experienced more and more mass shootings, we cannot ignore the fact that assault weapons are a common theme in almost all of them,” Polis said in a statement to The Colorado Independent.
For Democrats in Colorado, gun politics have been historically tricky.
In 2013, the then-all-Democratic legislature passed a package of gun laws that included banning magazines that carry more than 15 bullets, a move that led to the recall of two Democratic legislators. That same year, Democratic U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet voted against the assault-style weapons ban Polis criticized as interfering with “the recreational use of guns by law-abiding Coloradans.”
At the time, Polis said, “If we want to reduce violence, we should invest in improving our schools to ensure that young people have jobs and do not turn to gangs, crime or violence of any form, and improving access to mental health services.”
Polis’s current position on banning certain guns also comes as more voters demand legislative action in the aftermath of another school shooting.
A recent CNN poll found 70 percent of Americans in favor of stricter gun laws— the highest number since the early 1990s. Across the country, a narrative is forming about whether stricter laws on guns will be a major issue for voters in the midterm elections this November and which way moderates might swing.
The guns debate in Colorado has been simmering since October when a man opened fire from a hotel room in Las Vegas, raining bullets on concert-goers at an outside music festival. Authorities found some of the gunman’s firearms rigged with devices called “bump stocks” that allow semi-automatic weapons to fire like machine guns.
In the wake of the killings, Donna Lynne, Colorado’s Democratic lieutenant governor, said if she became governor she would sign legislation banning the “manufacture, possession, transfer, sale, or importation” of such devices, which were likely previously unknown to most voters. And last week, after the gun rampage at Stoneman Douglas school in Parkland, Florida, she put out a statement praising two of Colorado’s Democratic members of Congress for supporting legislation to ban “assault-style weapons,” and urging “all members of our delegation to drop their long-standing opposition to banning the sale of assault weapons”— a subtle jab at Polis.
After the Florida school shooting, the issue boiled over. And now, the first TV ad of the Democratic gubernatorial primary in Colorado, unveiled this week by former State Sen. Mike Johnston, focuses on banning “military-style weapons” and directly taking on the NRA gun lobby. Johnston released his ad a week before Democratic voters will gather at thousands of neighborhood caucuses across Colorado to show their support for the gubernatorial candidate of their choice.
Staking out a position even further to the left on the issue is businessman Noel Ginsburg.
As governor, the self-described moderate Democrat says he would push for a law that says those who want to buy guns in Colorado must first take a training course or pass a test. He says he would ban “semi-automatic assault rifles,” and would also push for harsh penalties for those who leave a gun unattended if it winds up killing someone by accident or on purpose.
“I believe gun owners who did not handle that gun responsibly should be charged with a felony,” Ginsburg said in an interview with The Colorado Independent.
Two years ago, during the heat of the presidential primary, Hillary Clinton traveled to Colorado where she made a big push to curb gun violence, also a week before the caucuses. She was later trounced here by Bernie Sanders, a candidate Clinton had ripped for his record on gun policy.
Now the issue is even hotter.
In Colorado, at campaign stops on college campuses to pizza parties, Democratic voters are asking candidates for governor what they will do to stem future bloodshed from mass shootings.
During a swing through Colorado College in November, former Democratic State Treasurer Cary Kennedy said she supported the right to bear arms. “But not the kind of assault weapons that we see used in these mass shootings,” she told a group of students. “They have no place in this country or on our streets in private ownership.” She said she would want to “get all of those military-style weapons off the streets,” including accessories like bump-stocks. Kennedy was referring to future sales of such guns and gun parts, according to her campaign.
Kennedy also supports a state law that would allow family members or police to ask a court to temporarily remove a person’s access to firearms if they pose a danger to themselves or others.
At a December campaign event in Parker, Polis told a small crowd at a house party that he, too, would want to ban bump-stocks. “You’ll find the vast majority of [sportsmen], unlike their national mouthbox the NRA, are actually very reasonable,” he said. “They don’t use bump-stocks for sport.”
Just days after the latest mass-shooting in Florida, a man asked Polis over a pizza lunch at a campaign event in Colorado Springs to explain what he would do as governor and his remaining time as a congressman to address gun violence. Polis said he has supported efforts for universal background checks and to allow the Centers for Disease Control to research gun violence, and to ban bump stocks.
“We will soon be rolling out an assault weapons ban that I will be part of as well,” he said, adding that he didn’t think Republicans would let such bills come to a vote because the NRA, which he called a “gun-manufacturing lobbying firm,” funds their campaigns.
“None of this has anything to do with depriving anybody of their Second Amendment rights or taking away anybody’s weapon,” Polis said. “It’s just about making sure that people are safer and that we get these weapons of war off of our streets.”
If he becomes governor, Polis said, he would support working with the Legislature on additional measures like making sure people subject to a temporary restraining order in a domestic abuse case lose access to their guns while it’s in effect. “We don’t have that here and that would be a positive step,” he said. “There’s a lot of other things like that that I think could be done.”
The current bill Polis is sponsoring in Congress would “prohibit the sale, transfer, manufacture, and importation of semiautomatic weapons and ammunition feeding devices capable of accepting more than ten rounds, while protecting hunting and sporting rifles,” according to a Polis spokesperson. Meanwhile, he authored a recent guest column in The Aurora Sentinel, saying he wants to equip gun shop owners with more security measures like cameras, “discrete signage,” and reinforced windows while beefing up penalties for illegal gun sales.
Dave Kopel, a Colorado attorney who has written books and articles about gun laws and the Second Amendment, sees the emergence of gun restriction rhetoric in the Democratic primary as a “culture war” platform, saying, “They’re all falling all over themselves to be the most extreme opponents of the Constitution.”
In 2014, when Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper ran for re-election, gun politics played heavy in the race. He battled blowback that stemmed from “contradictory and untrue comments” he made about the gun measures passed by his fellow Democrats in the legislature after he told a group of sheriffs he hadn’t spoken to ex-New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg about the laws. But Hickenlooper won re-election that November and two Democrats took back the seats their party lost amid the gun-bill recalls.
Those laws still provide stark partisan battle lines in the current governor’s race.
Democratic candidates Polis, Johnston, Kennedy, Lynne, Ginsburg, and Underwood* all told The Colorado Independent in answers to a questionnaire that they would not repeal the 2013 state law to ban gun magazines that hold more than 15 rounds
Republicans running for governor, including Walker Stapleton, Victor Mitchell, Doug Robinson, Lew Gaiter, Greg Lopez and Steve Barlock, all say they would repeal the high-capacity magazine law if elected, according to answers to a questionnaire to The Colorado Independent. As attorney general, Republican Cynthia Coffman, also running for governor, defended the state ban in court, though she opposed it politically. A campaign spokesperson didn’t answer when asked if Coffman would repeal the law if elected. In December, as AG, Coffman helped push for an NRA-backed law to allow people with concealed weapons permits to carry hidden guns in any state, a proposal President Donald Trump this week said shouldn’t be in a current gun-bill package.
*NOTE: A previous version of this story reported Democrat Erik Underwood said he would repeal the 2013 high-capacity magazine ban based on answers he gave to a questionnaire. He later said he misunderstood the question. He says he does not support repealing the law.