On March 22, 2021, a gunman took the lives of 10 innocents at a Boulder grocery store less than a mile from where I lived when I attended CU Law School. The Saturday before the shooting, the Denver Post had published an opinion piece that I co-authored with Myra Isenhart of Colorado Ceasefire. We made the point that gun sales surged in 2020, as did gun-related violent crime. More guns in Colorado in 2020 did not make us safer. The Boulder shooting was a horrific exclamation point to our narrative.
That shooting put the spotlight on Colorado once again. We have seen more than our share of gun violence and done more than many states to combat it. We have not succeeded in stemming gun violence, but that should not stop us from trying. Perhaps a look back will help us move forward.
In 1993, the year I became the Denver district attorney, we experienced The Summer of Violence, a surge in violence that, among other things, involved the use of guns. Denver had passed a variety of gun-related ordinances, including a ban on assault weapons, before I became DA as part of a strategy to curb gun violence.
Meanwhile, a war of words was being waged about gun laws at the State Capitol. The debate pitted the gun lobby against gun
control legislators and advocates who largely preferred the status quo and were opposed to loosening restrictions. Over the next 12 years, in my time as DA, I testified innumerable times in the Colorado’s House and Senate on proposed gun legislation. My testimony would earn me a grade of F from the NRA when I ran for governor in 2006.
Before 1999, the gun lobby held a great deal of sway inside the state capitol, although there were moderate Republicans who would not vote with the NRA. If anything did pass, Gov. Roy Romer was the backstop with a veto to ensure Colorado did little to loosen the restrictions on purchasing, possessing and carrying firearms in Colorado.
That all changed between 1999 and 2003. Some moderate Republicans were term-limited, the House and the Senate were both controlled by the Republicans, and Bill Owens, a Republican, was elected governor in 1999. By mid-April, 1999, several gun-related bills supported by the gun lobby on their way to becoming law. Then on April 20, 1999, the Columbine High School massacre happened. Republicans pulled all the bills and many, including Gov. Owens, worked with a broad coalition of advocates to pass Amendment 22, which closed the gun show loophole in Colorado.
If only that were the end of the story. It is not. Over the next few years, as memories faded, many of the bills that had been shelved in 1999 after Columbine, were resurrected, debated, and passed into law. Among them was a statewide preemption law that kept local governments from regulating the purchase, possession and sale of firearms in any manner that was more restrictive than state law.
I became governor in 2007, and although Democrats controlled both houses, we lacked support to overturn laws the legislature had passed a few years earlier.
I left office in 2011 and a year later the Aurora theater shooting happened. Gun law debates were back on the table in the 2013 legislative session. Two bills, one concerning background checks and one concerning magazine lengths, were signed into law by Gov. John Hickenlooper.
Some criticized the new laws as too little, a muted response to an extraordinarily tragic event. Others believed the legislature did all they could under the circumstances. But the gun lobby? They went full bore after two Democratic state senators elected in swing districts in Colorado Springs and Pueblo. They beat them both in recall elections in 2013.
When someone tells you that guns are a “third rail” issue in Colorado politics, believe them.
In 2019, when another Democratic-controlled legislature, with a Democratic governor, Jared Polis, passed a controversial red flag law, the gun lobby reared its head once again, promoting recall efforts against some of the law’s supporters, but the fallout two years later seems minimal.
Also in 2019, the City of Boulder passed a ban on assault weapons. Weeks before the Boulder mass shooting, Boulder District Court Judge Andrew Hartman struck down that ban as being pre-empted by state law. There are many vocal critics of Judge Hartman’s decision, but I am not one of them. I was there when the pre-emption law was debated, and the supporters of that legislation intended to prohibit exactly what Boulder did in passing its ban.
This year, the legislature was debating gun bills regarding safe storage and reporting lost or stolen firearms before the Boulder shooting. Now they are considering additional gun restrictions. They have any number of policy options that could be meaningful, including stricter background checks, more mental health exclusions, and more extensive firearms education and training.
Regarding assault weapons, their options exist on a spectrum: from an outright ban to eliminating the pre-emption law, to carving out an assault weapons exception inside the pre-emption law.
No gun debate in the legislature is without a political fight, and maybe even another round of recall elections. But, taking this issue seriously is the right thing to do. We can’t let the gun lobby kill reasonable efforts to protect Coloradans. Otherwise, we have to stop telling the families of victims in these mass shootings another big lie. The one where we say “We will never forget.” Because that is exactly what we do. We forget.
Bill Ritter Jr., is a former Denver district attorney and a former governor of Colorado.
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