For the Democrats running for governor in Colorado, gun bans take center stage

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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. 

Photo by Kit Case for Creative Commons on Flickr. 

8 COMMENTS

  1. I highly suspect that most of the 70% in favor of stricter firearms regulations don’t even know what the current regulations are.

    People like Underwood demonstrate their ignorance of the Bill of Rights, natural rights and firearms when they make statements like

    “I don’t know why anyone would need a high-capacity magazine clip to kill Bambi.”

    First, it’s not a “magazine clip.” It’s a magazine. More importantly, need-based ownership requirements for something which can be used responsibly, without violating others’ rights, have no place in a free society. I hope that I never need a weapon. An ignorant busy-body control freak politician certainly doesn’t have the moral authority to be my mommy and determine that I don’t need/may not have something simply because someone else misused that something.

  2. When you live in a civilized society you are a party to a social contract. I know; it sucks, but if it’s so unbearable pack up your copy of Atlas Shrugged and head to Mogadishu.

  3. Jim,

    You make a great argument. Just kidding. My “social contract” is that I don’t violate others’ rights. Yours is a rationalization to do so. Yes, I want to move to a place where rights aren’t protected by govt. Great idea! (I really mean “lame idea”).

  4. Everyone should have access to a killing machine because of my own narrow desire to own one. Plus, I promise to use it responsibly !

    OK

  5. 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.”
    ===============================
    Of course, the Supreme Court has not ruled against ANY of the multiple approaches to state and local control of guns since their opinion in Heller v. DC in 2008. They haven’t taken a case, allowing the appellate court opinions allowing the controls to stand.
    Apparently, Scalia’s paragraph about the Second Amendment not prohibiting reasonable regulation has a fair amount of power.

  6. Why does this read like an ad for the 2nd place loser of the dem caucus?

    Ben is right, we don’t need mommy.

    We need to instead focus upon the root cause of these shootings.

    Our society is sick and this is just one symptom of many.

  7. Ok, so why is no one actually trying to change society for the better? All we get are Nanny laws that take away rights from those who have done nothing wrong.

    We have a problem with education, with getting kids ready to be adults and to be productive. Why not raise the age of being an adult to 21, and make it so a 2 year degree or trade school is part of primary education?

    Part of the issue is that kids already realize how bad life is gonna be before they are even out of highschool, and why is gonna be bad? Our economy is in the toilet first and foremost, there are no jobs paying enough for people to live on without a piece of paper(degree) and even then that piece of paper has really taught you nothing about life as an adult. Paid for Trade schools would give people a chance to actually be able to enter the work force with a skill, this will give them a higher wage which means they pay more taxes, which is a win for our economy.

    Banning a gun because you do not like it does not mean the evil in this world will suddenly disappear. People all over the world, including here in the united states have used vehicles, knives and other things to harm people, and not just a few. Not long ago here in the US someone injured/killed 22 people with a knife. How many were killed in Florida? 17. This goes to show that the AR15 is not the only issue. if it was i would agree to get rid of it right now. but we have bigger problems and instead of changing the world for the better, stupid people allow even dumber people to convince them of a simple fix.

  8. Readers should know that a comprehensive assault-weapons ban instituted in Australia in 1996 (citizens may, however, still own shotguns or handguns) has ended mass shootings there–not one five-or-more-victim shooting in over 22 years. Australia has also licensed gun owners, and in conjunction with a government voluntary buyback program of extraneous guns, they’ve cut their gun-murder rate by almost two thirds.

    Thanks for a fine piece of journalism!

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