One Saturday in March, a month after the mass shooting in Parkland, Fla., angry demonstrators filled Denver’s Civic Center Park with a warning for elected officials: Come Nov. 6, we’ll make our voices heard.
Outraged by the shooting deaths of 17 high school students, they, like other March for Our Lives participants across the country, vowed to turn out politicians who were weak on gun control.
Here in Colorado, they found success. On the cusp of the 20th anniversary of the Columbine killings, Colorado’s blue-wave election ushered in a high-profile gun-control activist and father of a mass-shooting victim to the legislature, dislodged a five-term incumbent congressman backed by the National Rifle Association, and pushed out a prominent gun-rights state senator from Littleton. Voters also elected an attorney general who championed gun safety, and gave Democrats the majority in both legislative chambers, making passage of the “red flag” gun-confiscation law much more likely next year.
The elections in Colorado, which saw a record turnout of unaffiliated voters, by no means hinged on a single issue like guns. Exit surveys found President Donald Trump largely to blame for a resounding defeat of party members who embraced him up and down the ballot.
Still, some candidates made firearms issues a key part of their campaigns, and money from former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg poured into the state with messaging about ending gun violence.
In the final weeks of the campaign season, Democrat Jason Crow, who backed a ban on assault-style weapons, campaigned on the issue in his successful bid against incumbent Congressman Mike Coffman of Aurora. Following a mass shooting at a synagogue in Pittsburgh, the group Everytown for Gun Safety paid for $700,000 in advertising to hammer Coffman, a top recipient of NRA donations in Colorado.
At the same time, in the suburbs around Denver, gun-safety Democrats won seats in the Colorado House and Senate and helped hand the party full control of the Capitol for the first time since 2014.
Several were backed by groups like Colorado Ceasefire, which seeks to curb gun violence. The group this week boasted that 90 percent of the money it invested in races went to winning candidates. “Affirmative of the work of the gun violence movement, many of the winning candidates campaigned on issues dealing with gun violence,” the group posted on its website. The sentiment is the opposite of that in Florida, where gun-safety advocates on election night were reeling after gun-rights candidates appear to have narrowly won the governorship and a seat in the U.S. Senate.
“Moms Demand Action volunteers and gun violence survivors knocked doors and phonebanked for gun sense candidates across Colorado,” said the gun-violence prevention group Everytown for Gun Safety in a post-election statement, adding that volunteers had more than 5,000 doorstep conversations and more than 15,000 phone conversations with voters on behalf of candidates. “To help take back the state Senate and retain a majority in the state House, Everytown for Gun Safety Action Fund contributed $750,000 to political committees to support voter contact and mobilization activities.”
Tom Mauser, Colorado Ceasefire’s spokesman, said his group’s priorities for the upcoming legislative session include passing a red flag bill that would allow judges to order individuals’ guns be taken away if they are considered a significant risk to themselves or others. During last year’s legislative session, Republicans in the Senate rejected a bipartisan red flag bill. Now that Democrats will have a majority in the Senate, they will be able to control key panels, making such legislation easier to pass.
Ceasefire also hopes Democrats will take up legislation to deny gun ownership to people convicted of certain violent misdemeanors. Mauser said he does not expect to see a push to ban assault-style weapons, and was coy about other potential legislative priorities. “We need buy-in from our coalition partners and really don’t want to show our hand at this point,” he said.
Colorado is a state where lawful gun owners can carry firearms out in the open and where teachers are allowed to carry guns in schools with no statewide training program or regulation for them. But the state also puts strict limits on the amount of bullets a gun can magazine can hold, and its mandatory background check law stopped more than 7,000 people from buying guns last year alone. Colorado currently has a “C” grade on an annual gun law scorecard by the Giffords Law Center, which seeks to prevent gun violence.
What Ceasefire called “easily the sweetest moment” of this year’s election was the successful campaign of Tom Sullivan of Centennial, whose son Alex was killed in the Aurora theater shooting. Sullivan, one of the most prominent gun-safety advocates in Colorado, won election to the House, beating incumbent Republican Cole Wist, who was the assistant minority leader. (Wist was actually a sponsor of last year’s red flag bill.)
Sullivan said a red flag bill, also known as an Extreme Risk Protection Order law, is his top priority once he gets into office in January. “That’s what I believe the community is asking for,” he said. “That’s one of the reasons I’m there.”
In contrast to Ceasefire, the hardcore gun-rights group Rocky Mountain Gun Owners supported Republicans who lost multiple key races in attempt to retain control of the Senate.
One of them was incumbent Republican Sen. Tim Neville of Littleton, a fierce champion of gun rights. While in the Senate, Neville fought to scrap permitting requirements to carry a concealed weapon and backed a measure to extend the state’s “Make My Day” law to the workplace. The law allows Coloradans to use deadly force against intruders in their homes under certain circumstances. He also battled for repeal of a 2013 package of legislation that limits to 15 the number of bullets a gun magazine can hold in Colorado.
It is that 2013 law, which came following the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut, that led gun-rights activists in Colorado to launch a historic recall effort of Democratic lawmakers who supported it and resulted in the ouster of two of them.
Representatives for Rocky Mountain Gun Owners were not available to weigh in for this story because they were attending a conference. But in a post-election fundraising note to members, the group wrote, “Gun owners are in for the fight of our lives when the Colorado Legislature convenes under the control of newly elected anti-gun Democrat majorities.”
In an interview, Neville said it’s too early to predict what might come up on the gun policy front in the upcoming legislative sessions.
“A lot of people on the left put in a lot of big money, particularly from out of state sources, and so they will have an expectation on their investment, or their purchase, in Colorado paying off,” he said.
Following the slaughter at Sandy Hook, states actually expanded gun rights, “embracing,” as The Associated Press reported, “the National Rifle Association’s axiom that more ‘good guys with guns’ are needed to deter mass shootings.”
In the years since, more gun violence has bloodied the nation, and Colorado.
This year’s election season here was rife with gun-control rhetoric from Democrats up and down the ballot. In the Democratic primary for governor, gun bans took center stage for part of the campaign, and the candidates argued about who was more serious about ending the sale of certain kinds of firearms. Following last October’s mass shooting at an outdoor country music concert in Las Vegas, in which the shooter was said to have used a contraption called a bump stock to fire more rounds faster, even some Republicans running for governor here said they would want such accessories banned.
In the last legislative session, outgoing Democratic Sen. Mike Merrifield of El Paso County pushed a bill to ban bump stocks in Colorado, but Republicans thwarted it. Mauser, of Ceasefire, says it’s possible a lawmaker might introduce a similar state bill in Colorado this year, but it’s not a high priority for his group.
Outside of the political arena, one private citizen is hoping to keep the conversation about high-capacity firearms front and center.
Last month, Boulder attorney Lindasue Smollen paid for a billboard on Colo. Highway 93 near the Boulder and Jefferson County line that lists the number of people killed in mass shootings by AR-15 semi-automatic weapons, along with the words: “Thoughts and prayers are not enough.”
Smollen, who calls herself an “accidental activist” on the gun-violence front, says she wants such weapons banned in Colorado, but doesn’t know how involved she’ll get beyond her billboard, though she’s looking for more locations.
“I’m sort of a lone wolf,” she said. “I don’t play well with others in the sandbox, I don’t belong to a lot of groups and organizations, and I wanted to put this out and put it in people’s faces.”