Colorado Gun Debate Comes Full Circle

 

Colorado may have suffered the anguish of being home to the worst school shooting in American history and spawned a nationwide drive to limit access to deadly firearms but its own gun laws have changed little since the tragedy of Columbine High School.

In the nearly three years since two misfit teenage boys carried out their murderous school rampage, using guns obtained by skirting existing laws, the strident debate about gun control has largely fallen silent here.

"The pendulum has swung the other way," says Doug Dean, Speaker of the Colorado House of Representatives, a conservative Republican and proponent of easier gun access for law-abiding citizens.

Indeed, Colorado lawmakers have come full circle since Columbine, resuming debate on a decade-old fight to ease restrictions on carrying concealed weapons.

That issue was on the table on April 20, 1999, the day the Columbine attacks occurred, and appeared certain to pass. But Dean, co-sponsor of the bill, hastily pulled it from committee hours after the shootings.

It was revived this year. Known as the "shall issue" bill, it would require county sheriffs statewide to grant concealed gun permits to anyone of legal age -- unless they had a criminal history or showed evidence of mental illness.

The bill died in the state's Democrat-controlled Senate Judiciary Committee two weeks ago. But Dean said he will revive it as a House bill later this spring, and fight it out with Senate Democrats. The bill has strong support from Colorado's Republican Gov. Bill Owens.

Only modest gun control legislation ever passed the Colorado General Assembly after Columbine. The most notable was a "straw purchase" bill, making it illegal to purchase firearms for someone who cannot legally do so themselves. Killers Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold used a friend to buy a shotgun and a semi-automatic rifle from a local gun show.

Colorado's most significant gun control measure came not from lawmakers but from a ballot initiative. SAFE Colorado, founded by parents of Columbine victims, convinced voters to approve criminal background checks at gun shows in Colorado, like those done by retail gun shops.

The initiative occurred after lawmakers were unable to pass a similar measure in the General Assembly.

Only one gun control bill surfaced in the legislature this year, a measure to require safe storage of handguns in private homes. It died in a House committee.

Gov. Owens immediately got behind gun control measures after Columbine, and threw his support to the ballot initiative on gun shows, despite criticism from some Republican constituents.

But his support for the concealed weapons proposal is considered important, and political observers say it signals a move by Owens closer to the more conservative positions on firearms control that he had staked out prior to Columbine.

Dan Hopkins, Owens' press secretary, called the governor's positions on guns "consistent with of good state policy."

"The problem is we lack a uniform legal standard for issuing permits to carry a concealed weapon in Colorado, and the Governor proposes that we do something about that," Hopkins said. "Right now there is a haphazard, hodgepodge of laws where every county is different. There's even a police chief in rural Colorado who drives in to Denver to hand out gun permits to people," he said.

While the gun control impetus that followed Columbine has waned, a subsequent shift in the state's political landscape has had its own impact on the gun debate. When Democrats took control of the state Senate for the first time in 20 years after Columbine, it guaranteed a stalemate on firearms.

"The state did make some progress with the SAFE initiative, which was important, and I think a number of the important issues were addressed," said Hopkins. "But I would say, it appears now from the General Assembly's standpoint that there's not much desire to pursue it (firearms restriction) at this point."

Ken Gordon, D-Denver, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee and a leading critic of gun proliferation during a decade in the state legislature, says the "will" is there "but the votes are not.

"Any gun control legislation that might make it through Senate Judiciary is going to be killed in House State Affairs, and any pro-gun legislation that makes it through the House is going to die in Senate Judiciary," Gordon said. "That is the way it has been."

In light of the Columbine tragedy, that bothers him.

"We've basically done nothing," Gordon contends. "There is no message that everybody learned from Columbine. Some think guns should be less available, as a result, and some feel if there were more guns we'd be safer. I don't think we've learned a thing."

But Dean says he learned an important political lesson from his "emotional decision" in 1999 to pull a concealed carry bill off the table when it was guaranteed to pass.

"We did that out of respect for the families of those who were killed or injured, which at the time was the appropriate thing to do, I guess," Dean said. "But when you look at it strictly from a public policy standpoint, in hindsight, it might not have been the best thing to do."

At the time the bill's advocates state gun owners associations, some law enforcement authorities, and the National Rifle Association were well financed, had lobbying help from the NRA's Washington office, and strong support among the conservative Republicans who controlled the House and Senate.

But with Democrats controlling the Senate, Dean has ample cause to worry that the one opportunity to get a new concealed weapons bill passed may have been lost for some time to come.

"If we had just gone ahead after Columbine, as a matter of policy, we wouldn't be having this debate again, right now," he muses. "But, at the time, no one wanted to get up in the aisles and talk about guns, believe me. The whole state was grieving."

Still, for Dean, Columbine's lessons were not about firearms anyway.

"I don't think it told us anything about guns, it told us about human nature, and that some people are evil, and if people are determined to carry out evil acts, they are going to do so," Dean said. "Harris and Klebold brought bombs too, which fortunately did not go off. But if they had, would more legislation to control access to bombs do any good? I don't think so."

 
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