DENVER – Colorado Democrats on Thursday unveiled three more bills aimed at preventing gun violence – something they have pledged to do in the wake of the Boulder King Soopers shooting and with two other gun violence prevention bills already signed by the governor.
The bills, which sponsors discussed in a news conference and said would be formally introduced later Thursday, piggyback off of two other bills -- SB21-078 and HB21-1106, the safe storage and reporting of lost or stolen firearms – already passed by lawmakers and signed by Gov. Jared Polis this session.
A third bill which would force some domestic abusers to give up their firearms is still making its way through the legislative process.
The three new bills lawmakers will introduce would establish an Office of Gun Violence Prevention, strengthen background checks, and allow local communities to have local control over their gun laws, the sponsors said Thursday.
The sponsors called the three measures “common sense, life-saving policies” they say address what they called a public health crisis and epidemic of gun violence in Colorado.
Senate Majority Leader Steve Fenberg, D-Boulder, is sponsoring the local control bill. He said that by acting on a policy-by-policy basis, lawmakers can create safer communities across the state. But he said his bill acknowledges that different communities have different wants and needs when it comes to firearms.
“Each community has the unique expertise to know what it takes to make them safe,” he said. “…What works for Boulder might not work for Alamosa. What works for Sterling might not work for Denver. Our state includes a diverse set of communities and we should allow each to look out for the safety of their own.”
He and others said they are still awaiting more federal action on gun violence prevention but said that “cannot be an excuse for inaction.”
The suspect in the Boulder shooting is said by authorities to have purchased the weapon used, an AR-556, at a shop in Arvada legally. But the shooting came just days after a Boulder County District Court judge blocked the enforcement of a Boulder ban on assault style weapons and high capacity magazines, which cited a 2003 law that the local control bill aims to repeal, Fenberg said.
The local control was something that Boulder City Councilmember Aaron Brockett called for in the days after the Boulder shooting if there was not a national or state-level ban on assault weapons.
Sen. Rhonda Fields, D-Aurora, and Rep. Tom Sullivan, D-Centennial, are among the sponsors of the bill that would create the Office of Gun Violence Prevention, which they said would compile data on firearms use, gun violence and more, and perform education outreach on the state’s current laws, including its extreme risk protection order law.
“We need an office that’s responsible for prevention and intervention, and that’s what this bill is designed to do,” Fields said, adding that the data that the office would compile would further drive decision-making as it relates to gun violence at the state Capitol.
In an interview with Denver7 after the press conference, Sullivan said states like New York, Connecticut and Massachusetts already have similar programs in place to focus on education, intervention and researching gun violence.
“With an office like this with researchers out there doing it, we can find out maybe what the answer is and begin to do something about it,” Sullivan said.
He believes the establishment of this office could put Colorado at the front of the line for potential federal grants to combat gun violence if Congress passes reforms.
The third bill would implement a five-year ban on purchasing firearms for people convicted of certain violent misdemeanors, the sponsors said, expand background checks to cover misdemeanor convictions, and close the so-called “Charleston loophole” by which some people are still able to obtain firearms before their background check is complete or if it comes outside of the three-day window.
Those crimes include child abuse, hate crimes, animal cruelty, sexual assault and third-degree assault, lawmakers said.
Sen. Brittany Pettersen, D-Lakewood, is one of the sponsors of that bill and said she wanted the new measures to pass to protect her 15-month-old son from experiencing the gun violence she has seen over the decades as a Coloradan.
She also pointed to U.S. data showing 5,807 people were able to purchase firearms last year despite previous offenses which should have barred them from doing so and thousands more checks that were purged because they were not completed within a 90-day window.
“We’re not going to accept a reality where this is what our kids are going to have to go through,” she said. “This is a reality none of us should accept.”
Sen. Julie Gonzales, D-Denver, said the misdemeanors were intentionally selected after research and that lawmakers when writing the bill “didn’t say any misdemeanor and didn’t say any crime.”
The lawmakers said they were unfazed by more threats of recalls and opposition from Republicans, some of whom have already said they oppose the measures as of publication.
“We are standing before you working on issues the vast majority of Coloradans support,” said House Speaker Alec Garnett, D-Denver. “No one fears recalls on doing things the vast majority of Coloradans expect us to do.”
“The question was not how to ban assault weapons,” Fenberg added, “it was, what are the next steps we can take as a state that are going to save the most lives? These bills, we think, are the answer to that question. But that doesn’t mean the end, by any means.”
Sullivan, whose son Alex was killed in the Aurora theater shooting, described how he and some of the gun violence prevention groups present for Thursday’s announcement had started years ago discussing these types of measures in basements and “any space we could find to talk about ways to move the needle” and how much things had shifted since then. He was the lead sponsor of Colorado’s extreme risk protection order bill that was signed two years ago.
“Now, between the gun violence prevention bills that have already passed this session and the three bold new measures we are outlining today, this legislative session may end up being the most transformative legislature Colorado has ever seen as it relates to gun violence,” he said. “We might be the most transformative in the country. And in fact, we’re transforming the country. Don’t let anyone tell you what we’re doing today isn’t bold and transformational change.”
While the Democratic leadership from the House and Senate were excited about the new slate of bills, Republicans are already criticizing the measures.
Sen. John Cooke, R-Greeley, believes the local preemption bill in particular will create confusion for law abiding citizens since each city and county will be able to pass their own laws on gun reforms.
He also questioned the potential effectiveness of these bills in preventing someone from getting a firearm since they will still be able to purchase them in neighboring states.
“I think it’s another knee-jerk reaction coming from the Democrats on a tragedy that they have this attitude of, ‘Well we’ve got to do something no matter what it is,’ to make people feel better even though it won’t accomplish anything,” Cooke said.
He said he believes the state should instead focus on enforcing the laws currently on the books and give longer sentences to criminals who use firearms, though he disagrees with enforcing a magazine capacity ban.
Instead of closing the Charleston loophole, Cooke says lawmakers should focus on providing more funding to the Colorado Bureau of Investigation so that it can complete background checks more quickly.
House Republicans, meanwhile, wrote in a statement that everyone is sick of the gun violence and wants to figure out the root cause, including addressing mental health, which Democrats said they are also addressing through other bills.
“The creation of new bureaucracies is never the solution. Like the ‘Office of Saving People Money on Health Care’, the creation of the ‘Office of Gun Violence Prevention’ will only starve real efforts of scarce resources. A good start to finding solutions would be to increase the reimbursement rate for mental and behavioral health services,” the statement read.
It went on to say that revamping the background check system would be arbitrary.
Like the previous gun reform bills, this latest round of legislation is likely to face a lengthy, contentious debate in the House and Senate.