DENVER – Expanded background checks for firearm sales in Colorado were passed by Democrats last year at great political cost. Now Republicans are offering up a bill to repeal the law, reigniting the debate about gun control during an election year.
The debate in a Senate committee today is expected to be one of the most heated of the session, much like it was last year when hundreds of people showed up to testify on a package of gun bills pushed by Democrats. Amid strong opposition from Republicans and with the White House watching, Democrats made Colorado the first state outside of the East Coast to pass gun-control laws after the Sandy Hook elementary school shootings.
The laws included limiting ammunition magazines to 15 rounds and requiring background checks for private and online sales. Two Democratic senators lost their jobs as a result through subsequent recall elections, and a third resigned under pressure when a recall effort was underway.
The Republican bill to be presented today would undo the new background-check requirements. However, with Democrats in control of the Legislature – as well as the governor’s office – and enough votes to block it in committee, the GOP bill faces long odds of passing. But it gives Republicans a chance to continue a fight – even if in the end only symbolic – on an issue that’s popular with their base.
The proposal for repeal is being carried by Pueblo Republican Sen. George Rivera, a former police officer and the lawmaker who replaced Democratic Sen. Angela Giron in the September recalls.
“Additional rules, additional legislation does not change evil people who have evil intent from wanting to do something and being able to accomplish it regardless. That’s been my experience in law enforcement,” Rivera said.
Democrats remain firm in their support for the new gun restrictions, and they insist they’re working.
According to the Colorado Bureau of Investigation, which conducts the background checks, 104 people have been denied firearms during private and online transactions since the law took effect July 1. Among the denials, one had a homicide on their record, six had restraining orders, and 16 had assaults.
In all, 6,076 background checks have been conducted for private and online sales. That’s a small percentage of the overall number of checks for the year, which stands at 389,604.
Families who’ve lost loved ones to mass shootings say they’re encouraged by the number of firearm denials.
“In our situation, it took just one person,” said Tom Sullivan, whose son Alex was among the 12 killed in the 2012 suburban Denver theater shootings.
Those opposed to the expanded background checks argue they restrict the constitutional rights of law-abiding citizens, and they’re not convinced the law has been beneficial.
“Yes, it kept the weapons out of their hands. But the thing is, there’s no proof or guarantee that they would have done something felonious with those weapons,” Rivera said.
Rivera’s bill is just the first attempt to repeal the gun restrictions. Other bills, which haven’t been heard yet, target portions of the background checks, and Republicans are also trying to repeal the ammunition magazine limit.
Religious leaders Thursday urged lawmakers to keep the laws on the books.
“Colorado tragically has already seen a disproportionate amount of senseless gun violence in recent memory,” Rabbi Joseph Black said.
As Republicans head into the November elections with the goal of reclaiming control of the Legislature, Democrats trying to maintain power are carefully navigating the gun-control debate, an issue that has gotten them mixed results among voters. According to a Quinnipiac University poll taken in November, 55 percent of Colorado voters disapproved of the new gun restrictions. But an overwhelming number, 85 percent, supported the expanded background checks.
One of the criticisms Democrats faced last year during the gun debates was that hearings were rushed, and many people who came to testify were not given a chance. It’s a mistake they say they won’t make this year.
“We are bound this year to make sure that the bills in this situation get heard, that those who come to testify are able to testify,” said Sen. Lucia Guzman, a top-ranking Democrat.