In Colorado, two mass shootings haven't stopped attacks on gun control

Gun rights continue to polarize groups on both sides, as battle lines are drawn for 2016.

 

Late last month, a jury convicted 27-year-old James Holmes to life in prison for killing 12 people and wounding 70 more in 2012 at a movie theatre in Aurora, Colorado. It was the deadliest gun massacre in Colorado’s recent history, after the 1999 mass shooting at Columbine High School.

In the aftermath of Aurora, Colorado tightened its gun laws — generating a Republican-led backlash that cost two Democratic legislators their seats. Though the new laws survived, the fight showed that the victory for gun control was precarious in a purple state. As both sides prepare for the 2016 election, the debate continues to polarize Coloradans.  

In 2013, Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper, a Democrat, signed three major bills into law, which together made some of the most dramatic gun policy changes in the country. Among them was a measure extending mandatory background checks to people purchasing weapons online and from private sellers. Hickenlooper also passed a ban on high-capacity magazines holding more than 15 rounds of ammunition, like those used in Columbine and Aurora.

The new laws were not without challengers. Leading the charge was Colorado gun-rights crusader Dudley Brown, known for his hyper-aggressive tactics. Brown founded the Rocky Mountain Gun Owners and the National Association for Gun Rights, groups that categorically oppose all gun-related restrictions. After winning control of the state senate by a single seat last fall, GOP lawmakers, supported by the Rocky Mountain Gun Owners, put forth a set of bills repealing the 2013 reforms and bolstering gun rights.

Second Amendment lobbyist Dudley Brown's views on gun rights have helped polarize the debate in Colorado.
National Association for Gun Rights

In the end, all 12 bills were voted down, but the showdown signaled that Colorado’s debate over gun control is far from over.

“I think it reinforced the need for most people to stay politically involved and work in the next election to elect representatives that support civil rights,” says Dave Kopel, research director at the Independence Institute, a Denver-based free market think tank that supports Second Amendment rights. He expects bills repealing the high-capacity magazine ban as well as the extended background checks to show up again, especially in the lead-up to the election.

Tom Mauser, a gun control proponent with the advocacy group Colorado Ceasefire, whose son was killed in the Columbine shooting, says even after enduring two of the worst mass shootings in recent memory, gun control has become an increasingly partisan issue in Colorado. Back in 2000, Mauser says, he could count on at least a few GOPers to vote for gun safety bills. “Now it’s a third rail for Republicans.” He pointed to the 85 percent of Colorado citizens who voted in favor of the universal background checks; not one Republican lawmaker followed suit.

Brown — who owns a fully automatic MP5 machine gun requiring a special federal permit — is a big part of that shift. But his no-compromise strategy has even the NRA backing away (an NRA official once tagged him the "Al Sharpton of the gun movement") — and put him at odds with many of Colorado’s more moderate gun rights advocates. He opposed a recent Democrat-led proposal to raise the 15-round ammunition magazine limit enacted two years ago to 30 rounds, an idea supported by the Independence Institute.

The in-fighting among gun rights advocates over raising the magazine limit helped kill the whole discussion earlier this year, a trend gun control groups see working to their advantage. Kopel agreed, calling Dudley a “charlatan” who doesn’t actually work to improve gun rights and instead uses radical positions on guns to advance his ultra right-wing agenda. “He’s an anti-gun Democrat’s best friend,” says Kopel.

In Mauser's view, there’s a widening rift between the hard-core fringe of the pro-gun lobby and the rest of the movement. The NRA has moved to the right on gun issues, but “is only willing to go so far.”

Meanwhile, Colorado Ceasfire is targeting GOP lawmakers in suburban districts, whose extreme positions are out of step with the majority of their constituents. Mauser cited his own state senator, Tim Neville, as an example. Neville supported a bill that would allow a person with a concealed weapon permit to carry a gun into a school — a proposal that Mausner says would have appalled even people who support gun rights.

When Mauser invited the senator to publically debate him on the issue, Neville declined, telling him, “I don’t debate my rights.”

Sarah Tory is an editorial fellow at HCN.