In the wake of a Columbine-style school shooting in Florida last week, Colorado lawmakers again weighed a trio of bills aimed at loosening the state’s gun laws. All three failed on a partisan vote, as they do each year, including one that would have allowed school staff to carry firearms with an existing concealed-carry permit.
In a nine-hour hearing, the House State, Veterans and Military Affairs Committee, with six Democrats and three Republicans, also killed House Bill 1074, which would have allowed the use of deadly force against an intruder at a business, and HB 1015 to repeal the state’s 15-round limit on ammunition magazines.
Columbine students, past and present, students from other local schools, teachers, gun advocates, educators and survivors brought the national conversation on guns and schools back to Colorado, where, in a sense, it started after the 1999 massacre by two students who killed 13 and wounded 20 at the school in Jefferson County.
HB 1037’s main sponsor, House Republican Leader Patrick Neville of Castle Rock, recounted the shooting at Columbine High School in 1999, when he was a student there. He said it was about giving people under assault a fighting chance to defend their lives.
“Only in exceptional cases does law enforcement show up early enough to stop a murderer,” Neville told the committee. “People under attack can’t wait on police. The data show they’ll likely be dead by then.”
Neville was joined in support of the bill by other Columbine survivors, including Evan Todd, who was threatened but allowed to live after begging for his life in the school library that day.
“I sat there waiting for someone to stop what was going on,” he said Wednesday. “I sat in that library and listened to people being murdered.”
Jennifer Thompson huddled behind a locked door in the science room at Columbine High as her teacher, Dave Sanders, bled to death. She described the killers outside the classroom door, trying to get in. They could have been stopped if one of the three teachers in the room had had a gun, she said.
“The attack would have been cut short, and Mr. Sanders and many of the victims of that day could very well be alive today,” she told the committee. “I know that school shootings are going to continue to happen because little, almost nothing, has been done in the last two decades to stop them from happening.”
Rep. Jovan Melton of Aurora was another Democrat who pushed back on the bill. He asked Thompson about the bill under consideration, which didn’t come with training or requirements to ensure a gun is properly secure to prevent accidents.
“I think it would be important to make some amendments to it,” Thompson conceded. “But I do believe this is a great way to stop these shootings from happening in the first place.”
Democrats on the committee said more money should be invested in schools for higher security measures, but more guns was a non-starter.
Committee Chairman Mike Foote, a prosecutor from Lafayette, said he voted against the bill because the opposition was overwhelming compared with the gun rights supporters who usually turn out at the Capitol. He cited the scores of Coloradans, students and organizations that opposed the gun bill.
“I’m going to ... listen to my constituents,” Foote said. “If more guns made us safer, war zones would be the safest places in the world.”
Rep. Dave Williams, R-Colorado Springs, said the timing of the bill was unfortunate but the legislation is necessary.
“The only way to take on evil is to have someone who is good who is equally armed,” he said.
Melton disagreed with the premise of the bill, however.
“We don’t ask law enforcement to teach math because that’s not what they’re trained to do, so why are we asking teachers, who don’t get post-certified, who don’t get the weapons training, to carry guns in a vulnerable place with vulnerable children?” he said.
Jane Dougherty, whose sister Mary Sherlach was a counselor killed by a mass shooter at Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012, sounded tired Wednesday. A Colorado resident, she has testified at the Capitol on each gun bill that has been presented there since her sister’s death.
“After five years of fighting dangerous gun bills, it no longer surprises me that the answer to gun violence that has plagued our state is always more guns,” she said. “It’s taken right out of the gun lobby’s playbook. Gun extremists believe putting guns in the hands of good teachers will stop bad guys from committing mass shootings in our schools. It seems a little oversimplified.”
Ken Toltz of Safe Campus Colorado wondered aloud how the bill with no chance of passage with the House Democratic majority keeps coming up every year.
“I’m left with the conclusion that it’s all about ideology and not about humanity,” he said.
Robert Edmiston, representing the Firearms Coalition of Colorado, an NRA affiliate, called the legislation a “common-sense bill to protect school children.”
“Last week, the system failed in a Florida high school,” he told the committee. “Today, we have a chance to improve the system in Colorado.”
Dave Kopel, a gun policy expert for the Independence Institute in Denver, cited a list of lesser-known gun incidents – lesser-known because someone else with a gun stopped the shooter, including the 2007 confrontation at New Life Church in Colorado Springs, when an armed security officer killed a mass shooter before he could reach the sanctuary during a Sunday morning service.
He said a law similar to Neville’s proposal has been on the books in Utah since 1997.
“There have been no instances of teachers shooting students or any of those scenarios,” Kopel told the committee.
One teacher accidentally shot a toilet. “And that was irresponsible on her part,” Kopel said. (She was charged with a misdemeanor over the 2014 incident.)
Kopel said supporting Neville’s school bill wouldn’t mean gun-control advocates are selling out any other changes they want.
“This isn’t an either-or bill,” he said. “You can be for lots of other gun controls, and also be for this. There are all kinds of things you can do to try to stop bad people from acquiring guns, and this bill doesn’t stop that. We can do both, just as we can ... also talk about increasing resources to help people with mental illness.”