Gun Fight Vexes Colorado Lawmakers

 

The Colorado Legislature has been a focal point of the gun law debate in the aftermath of last April's shooting spree at Columbine High School.

That's good news for Republican Gov. Bill Owens, who early in the session asked lawmakers for passage of bills to better safeguard citizens and, in particular, schools.

It's bad news for lawmakers already tired of E-mail threats, phone calls and letters about the gun control issue.

Owens was only months into his first term when two Columbine High School students went on a shooting and bombing rampage, killing 12 students and a teacher before killing themselves.

It was the worst school shooting incident in the nation's history, and the wrangle in the Statehouse brings the agony of Columbine back in the news almost daily.But Owens' call for toughening of laws to limit the sale of weapons to criminals and minors split his GOP majorities in both houses, and pulled the National Rifle Association and more conservative splinter groups back into the fray.

The leaders of one group, The Rocky Mountain Gun Owners, refer to him as ``Gov. Gun Control,'' and ``Gov. Benedict Owens.''

After weeks of hearings -- some bringing witnesses who wore bulletproof vests -- the House passed a gun law package that is a gutted version of what was originally proposed.

Ten bills, with relatively minor impact, were sent on to the Senate and one was killed. Now, they go to the Senate Judiciary Committee, where a gentle but tough veteran legislator, Sen. Dottie Wham, R-Denver, presides.

Wham, who has warred with the NRA before, and won every battle, was clearly fatigued by the gun issue before the House bill hearings last week.

The chairwoman was tired and recovering from a pre-session stroke. She was limiting herself to a half-day of work.

``It's worse up here than it's ever been,'' she said. ``It's just a constant stew.''

The bill that died in the House was one Owens clearly wanted. It would have allowed Colorado to prosecute gun dealers licensed by the federal government if they sold handguns to anyone under 21.

Critics said it did nothing and cost too much, because federal agents can already prosecute dealers for such illegal sales.

Earlier, a House committee scuttled a bill requiring background checks on all customers at gun shows.

Owens was quick to respond to that bill's defeat, saying he regretted the loss. He called it a ``common-sense'' enforcement issue that would have kept handguns away from those under 21.

Lawmakers did pass one key bill sought by the governor, one to continue funding to the Colorado Bureau of Investigation for more weapons background checks.

Still, Democrats were making political hay out of the fact that lawmakers did not act on bills to include background checks on all sales made at gun shows; require safe storage of firearms in homes with children, and banning handgun sales to anyone under 21.

Rep. Fran Coleman, D-Denver, hammered the NRA, saying it did ``a darn good job'' of gutting or weakening gun control legislation.

She and others say if lawmakers don't pass stronger bills, citizen groups will draft and get on the ballot referred issues that will be even tougher.

Rep. Gloria Leyba, D-Denver, is one who firmly believes the Colorado lawmakers are being watched.

"The country is watching," she said. "And I think the country is surprised at the nature of debate, that we haven't learned anything."

 
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