Colorado lawmakers’ latest suite of gun reform bills bolster the state’s position at the vanguard of the national firearm debate, advocates and critics say, while marking it as a proving ground for how step-by-step reforms can coexist within the West’s distinct regional identity.
As Colorado has turned deeper shades of blue over the past five years, it’s simultaneously become a regional and national leader in reforming its gun laws, lawmakers and activists said. The grip that Democrats have on state government has signaled to national gun reform groups, like Everytown for Gun Safety and Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, that they can pass legislation here.
In a libertarian, otherwise conservative region, Colorado’s changing political culture and success in advancing gun reform is either proof of concept for like-minded legislators or a warning to wary neighbors.
Amid growing Capitol protests by students affected directly by gun violence, the Colorado House and Senate are poised to pass bills to raise the age limit to purchase firearms; institute a waiting period; make it easier to sue gun manufacturers; and expand the state’s red-flag law.
A more sweeping (and controversial, even among some Democrats) bill — to ban the sale or transfer of assault weapons — has been introduced but, a month later, is still awaiting its first committee hearing.
The bills aren’t passing in a vacuum. Last year, Rhode Island and Delaware passed age-limit laws, according to an analysis by the National Conference of State Legislatures. Delaware passed an assault weapons ban, too. While Colorado lawmakers are contemplating legislation addressing “ghost guns,” four states last year passed laws regulating them.
In all, roughly 1,400 bills that mentioned the word gun or firearm were introduced in American legislatures last year, according to the NCSL.
“Colorado is in a position to really be an example, at least for this half of the country, the middle part of the country, of where some of our boundaries can be and thinking about who we are in our past,” said Denver Democratic Rep. Jennifer Bacon, who also serves as the assistant majority leader in the House. “In a lot of ways, we have pulled from more densely urban states, and in a lot of ways, we’re still having conversations as if we’re ranchers. Both conversations are happening now in a way that may not be had in Massachusetts or California.”
Colorado, she said, is still a Western state, with a distinct rural identity alongside growing urban centers, flush with (often more progressive) out-of-state transplants. But Democratic legislators here are showing that those two identities can exist, she said, while passing gun reform.
Broadly, Republicans agree, said Delta Republican Rep. Matt Soper: Colorado is the “regional hegemon,” and he, like Bacon, hopes other states take a lesson from it.
“So goes Colorado, so goes the rest of the Rocky Mountain states eventually,” said Soper, who in March apologized to fellow lawmakers for threatening a new civil war over gun control. “Wyoming and New Mexico and Utah, Nebraska — although they’re not really Rocky Mountain — they ought to be looking to Colorado because if you’re concerned about what we’re doing, you ought to take preventative steps to make it more difficult for that to happen.
“Amend your state’s constitution, do whatever it takes because Rep. Bacon is not wrong,” he continued. “Colorado is a deliberate testing ground for an entire region of the United States. That’s why I’m concerned.”
States are already responding, Soper said: New Mexico lawmakers defeated a waiting-period bill there after seeing Colorado Republicans (unsuccessfully) filibuster a similar bill here in early March, he said.
Daniel Fenlason, executive director of the Colorado State Shooting Association, likewise sees Colorado’s shift on gun laws as a move away from the West’s typical values. He, like other gun-rights organizations, has pledged to sue should the bills become law. The shooting association is the state’s National Rifle Association affiliate.
“The West was built and based on self-independence, self-reliance,” Fenlason said. “That’s the core of the Second Amendment. You can defend yourself, you can defend your freedom, you can defend your family and your country. … This legislation is removing that self-reliance.”
He sees Colorado’s step-by-step additions and reforms to gun laws as a systematic reining in of fundamental rights to self-defense. For a while, Colorado seemed to be following other states with reputations for restricting gun rights, like California, Illinois and New York. Now, “you’re starting to see us get on the edge of that radical position,” he said.
While Colorado’s gun reform laws have been pushed by Democrats, it hasn’t been universally supported by the near super-majority caucus. Sen. Nick Hinrichsen, a Pueblo Democrat, split his votes on the four bills touted by Democratic leadership. He voted yes to expand who can file a red-flag petition and to open gun manufacturers to liability lawsuits. He did not support raising the age for gun ownership to 21 or a three-day waiting period to take possession of a firearm.
He supports raising the age to own semi-automatic rifles but felt the proposal was otherwise too broad if it swept up bolt-action hunting rifles. Federal law already limits handgun ownership. Hinrichsen said he wasn’t convinced that the three-day waiting period would be effective.
“When we’re putting a burden on somebody acquiring a firearm, I want to be careful that it has a public safety return on that. I think it was done in good faith, and I appreciate the concern my colleagues are trying to address,” Hinrichsen said. “Colorado is taking the right approach. I think we’re going in the right direction overall. Obviously, I don’t agree with everything, but I think we’re having some really serious and deliberative conversations around it. I think we’re moving the right way.”
Republican opposition to the bills often hinged on Second Amendment rights and the ability of Coloradans to defend themselves and their property.
“We’ve worked diligently to make sure that people who desire to be secure in and of themselves and have the ability to be secure,” Senate Minority Leader Paul Lundeen said.
The Senate held hours-long debates over the slew of gun bills that have moved through the Capitol. In the House, Republicans launched days of filibusters over the proposals. Democrats, who expanded their majorities in November, invoked House rules to end debate after two days of it.
Other states have taken the opposite track of Colorado: Alabama, Georgia, Ohio and Indiana all passed laws in 2022 making it easier to carry firearms, according to NCSL, and Wyoming passed a law that undercuts federal gun regulations (a similar Colorado bill was swiftly killed by Democrats in February).
Democratic state Sen. Tom Sullivan, whose son died in the 2012 Aurora theater massacre, said these rollbacks happen when states move on from tragedies and stop hearing the voices of those affected.
He cited what’s happening with Florida’s gun laws. On one hand, it passed a red flag law following the 2018 massacre at Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland. This year, its legislature passed a bill to allow permitless concealed carry.
“This is what happens generally when you have time after a major tragedy,” Sullivan said. “The people who were involved aren’t in the forefront of your thought anymore, and you can revert back to what you always thought in the past.”
Every Friday in the Senate, Sullivan pays tribute to his son, in part to remind his colleagues of the cost of gun violence. And every session he serves, he pledges to continue to focus on laws he hopes will prevent more gun violence.
In the midst of states’ varying approaches to gun reform, John Feinblatt, the president of Everytown, called Colorado a national leader, “in large part because Colorado voters kept electing lawmakers who’ve responded to tragedy with muscular action.”
Everytown ranks the state 12th overall for the strength of its legislation. A decade after Republicans launched recall efforts for legislators who supported gun reform, Democratic candidates are increasingly running on the issue, legislators said.
Giffords ranked Colorado similarly. As Ari Freilich, a state policy director for Giffords, put it, Colorado’s laws are stronger than most states — but also “there’s a dozen states that have done more.” It’s too early to compare Colorado to other states that are taking on their own reforms, but Freilich applauded Colorado’s efforts. In particular, he called the reform to liability protections for gun manufacturers a switch from “one of the weakest laws in the country to one of the best.”
“These are serious, substantive reforms that I think will do a lot to help Colorado continue to move forward and be on the right side of gun safety compared to other states,” Freilich said.
Despite Colorado’s grim status as a leader in mass shootings, Democratic legislators say they want to approach gun reform strategically, rather than in response to the latest horror at a grocery store, or school, or movie theater, or nightclub.
The bills may feel reactive, Bacon, the Denver lawmaker, said, because the tragedies happen so frequently. But she and other pro-gun reform legislators said they want to undertake a years-long, strategic approach.
“It’s my hope that we bring two, three, four bills every single session till we don’t have to do it anymore,” said Democratic Rep. Meg Froelich, a member of the party’s gun violence prevention caucus and the co-sponsor of the waiting period bill.
While there has been some movement at a federal level, Froelich said some of the state work is in response to inaction there.
“It’s a similar situation with reproductive rights where it falls upon the states to do the best they can,” she said. “But we also have to be very aware of Colorado culture and the political realities here, so I think we’re doing everything with a mind to our outdoor enthusiasts and sensible gun owners and folks doing the right thing.”
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