THE BLOG

"They Want a Scalp" -- With Eye to '14, Gun Lobby Takes Aim at Colorado Senate Leader

05/21/2013 05:05 pm ET | Updated Jul 21, 2013

If you're mad about the Big Nothing that happened in Congress after the murders in Newtown -- no federal gun control measures passed -- well, get ready, because the next big fight over guns and public safety is already brewing. In Colorado.

The Colorado state legislature took a sane, even a brave, step in response to Newtown, Aurora and Columbine, and other shootings. This March they passed a modest universal background check law, and a law restricting "private sales" of guns off the back of trucks and online, while not interfering with grandpa giving grandson the family heirloom rifle. And, they restricted the future sale and manufacture of ammunition to just 15 rounds. In a sense, Colorado legislators did what Congress failed to do.

So of course, following its mercenary playbook, the gun lobby has taken aim at four state legislators who supported the passage of Colorado's latest gun law.

Their charges have a certain screech: "Has failed to acknowledge the right conferred by the 2nd Amendment," "deprive the citizens of the very rights she is sworn to defend..." and "betrayed the trust of constituents." What others call gun safety legislation, the advocacy organization named Second Amendment Sisters aggressively reframe as Colorado's "citizen-disarmament bills."

The highest profile official in the NRA's cross hairs is Colorado Senate President John Morse, one-time cop, former police chief, and paramedic, and himself a gun owner. He oversaw the passage of the law, which was heralded as a cause for hope by those disappointed in the defeat of federal legislation post-Newtown.

Set an Example for 2014 Elections

The NRA -- which the twice-elected Morse, a Democrat with a Ph.D., refers to as a "financial Goliath" -- is pitching into an effort to catapult him out of office.

If the gun lobby unseats Morse, it will, predictably, use his involuntary retirement to scare the bejesus out of anyone running in the 2014 national midterm elections (at least in certain states) who is even thinking about gun safety legislation.

"They want to make an example of John," said Kjersten Forseth, a high-level political consultant, in a phone interview. "Our state legislation has become a national issue. They want to make a national example of what will happen to you if you pass gun safety legislation."

Eileen McCarron, a long-time gun safety activist and head of the Colorado Ceasefire Capitol Fund, agrees. "It is to make him a mark, to carry around and say look what happens if you mess with us. They want a scalp."

"If the NRA Can Take out Colorado's State President, They Can Take out Any Sitting Legislator in the Country"

In recent days, Morse's staff have noticed that new money is flowing into the effort to force a vote on whether to unseat him. His opponents only need about 7,200 petition signatures to force the recall election, says McCarron, and petitions are due in early June. Should it happen, the vote on whether Morse would lose his job representing Colorado Springs would take place this summer.

Quirky state rules would allow unlimited money to be spent on this campaign. Morse fears that the NRA could pour "millions" into Colorado in order to make him the poster child for their political power.

"This is a 'winner take all' kind of thing," he said. "If the NRA can take out the Colorado Senate President, it will have a huge chilling effect on gun safety measures."

The precise mechanism by which the NRA has gotten involved in this issue may seem arcane to outsiders. Colorado is one of a number of states in which grassroots petitions can force initiatives that elsewhere can only emanate from the legislature.

In fact, points out Morse, after the massacre at Columbine High School in 1999, the state's Republican-dominated legislature "did nothing." Background checks at gun shows were finally instituted, but only in response to a ballot initiative. The first time the Colorado legislature took major action on gun safety was in 2013, in response to the recent mass shootings in Newtown, Connecticut.

Promising swift punishment, the gun lobby is now helping finance a petition drive to force a public vote on whether to recall Morse. And if the petition drive wins then of course they will help fund the anti-Morse campaign.

To get the recall vote, the gun lobby has, says Forseth, hired paid canvassers. "We've seen people going door to door saying, 'sign this petition to protect our Second Amendment rights.' These canvassers get paid by the signature so they are motivated." She said the gun lobby has hired Kennedy Enterprises, which fields paid staff to get petition signatures.

When asked to clarify the NRA's position on how to prevent gun violence, Morse replied flatly, "I don't think they have a position on it, they aren't interested in gun violence prevention. I think they are interested in gun sales. Their take on gun violence prevention is that your gun should be as big, or bigger, as the next guy's."

The NRA Stirs the Hornets Nest To Drives Gun Sales

It's uncomfortable being the pawn in someone else's game. "My personal opinion is that the NRA stirs the hornets nest and that drives gun sales," he said.

Pausing, he added, "I've been told by Republican friends here that I'm the best thing that's happened to Colorado gun sales in a long time."

"Regrettable for Democracy"

The raucous fight over gun safety in Colorado has larger implications.

"The recall process was designed for removing people for misbehavior or malfeasance in office," said McCarron. "It's regrettable for democracy to have sitting legislators ousted for taking a courageous vote."

Girding for the fight ahead, Morse supporters have launched a fundraising and PR effort, A Whole Lot of People for John Morse.

More on this issue from the Denver Post.