Political Fallout Of Columbine Tragedy Still Uncertain
By Genevieve Anton, Special to Stateline
DENVER -- Just five months ago, Colorado was poised to become a poster child for the National Rifle Association. Now it is fast becoming the gun lobby's nemesis.
When the NRA held its annual meeting in Denver last May, it had hoped to celebrate the passage of several key bills to liberalize Colorado's gun statutes. But all that came to a screeching halt after the April 20 massacre at Columbine High School.
In the aftermath of the shooting spree that left 15 dead, stunned legislators withdrew far-reaching proposals that would have allowed gun owners to carry hidden handguns almost anywhere in the state and overturned all local laws restricting firearms. Moreover, Republican Gov. Bill Owens, avowedly pro-gun when he came into office, vetoed a bill that would have prevented local governments from suing gun manufacturers.
The NRA was forced to scale back its gathering, which attracted a brace of picketers.
Talk of the people's right to bear arms gave way to vocal new gun-control groups, a series of summits on how to control youth violence and public opinion polls that found Coloradans overwhelmingly favor stricter laws on firearms.
People who never gave a second thought to the gun debate joined post-Columbine protests and donated money to gun control efforts in Colorado, a state where firearms are second only to automobile accidents as a cause of violent death.
"The tide is changing among middle-of-the-road voters who now see gun control as a top priority," said John Head, spokesman for a bipartisan group called Sane Alternatives to the Firearms Epidemic, "What we are seeing is that a lot of average citizens who were not active on the issue before are now saying that enough is enough - something must be done,"
"If the legislature won't do it, we'll have a measure on the ballot in 2000," said the SAFE official, whose group was formed after Columbine to counter the NRA's clout.
More than two dozens gun bills from one extreme to the other are expected to be introduced when the General Assembly reconvenes in January, and threaten to dominate the entire session.
A handful of Republicans want to revive legislation to loosen restrictions on firearms that were torpedoed by the Columbine tragedy. Democratic lawmakers who pushed unsuccessfully for a special session on guns this summer will introduce aggressive firearms control bills that go beyond what other states have done.
What remains to be seen is whether lawmakers will find a compromise somewhere in the middle, or continue the polarization that so often leads to stalemate on the gun issue.
Owens tried to lay the groundwork for compromise in August by announcing his support for several gun control measures: safe storage of guns, background checks at gun shows and raising the minimum age for gun purchases from 18 to 21 at gun shows.
The governor called them "common sense" measures that "mainstream Coloradans support." Indeed, a recent poll by Talmey-Drake Research in Boulder found that at least two out of every three people in the state favor such gun control proposals.
But the backlash against guns has strengthened the resolve of many defiant gun owners and lobbyists.
So far the NRA has tactfully held its tongue, saying only that it welcomes Owens' attempt to "promote a dialogue." But a militant group called the Rocky Mountain Gun Owners gave Owens no slack, slapping him with the label "Governor Gun Control."
Even some Republican legislators blasted Owens for blindsiding them, accusing him of following the political winds of public opinion and turning his back on gun owners.
"Just because our party's governor comes out with these proposals doesn't mean we're going to roll over and pass them," said House Majority Leader Doug Dean.
"People have strong feelings on this - there's nobody out there who doesn't have an opinion on guns," said the Colorado Springs Republican. "I don't think you can be in the middle of the road. The only thing in the middle of the road is yellow stripes and road kill."
But some observers think that moderate Republicans who found it easier to simply go along and vote with the pack last year will take advantage of the political cover their conservative governor has provided by taking an early stand.
"If you had asked me at the end of the last session, I would have said the gun issue is dead for the next few years because of Columbine," said Senate Minority Leader Mike Feeley, D-Lakewood. "Here it is only August and that picture has change dramatically."
"I think you'll see some bills pass next year that at one time the pro-gun lobby could have stopped dead in a minute," he said.
This state is still a pro-gun stronghold, particularly in the conservative suburban and rural areas. There are 60,000 card-carrying NRA members in Colorado, including ranchers, hunters, gun collectors and firearms dealers.
The gun culture in rural Colorado is so entrenched that few townsfolk thought twice about going ahead with the Mancos Valley Lions Club Gun Show, a 14-year summertime tradition that is held in the local high school gym.
While reporters and some residents questioned the appropriateness of selling guns in a school, Lions Club President Bill Nittler nonchalantly offered this explanation.
"No other building is big enough," he said.