After a full day Tuesday of listening to testimony from gun control advocates and opponents, Colorado Democrats passed two bold new bills aimed at curbing gun violence in a state that has the dubious distinction of being the home to two of the bloodiest mass shootings in American history -- Columbine and Aurora.
First, the House Judiciary Committee passed House Bill 1229, on a 7 to 4 party line vote, which requires universal background checks on all private gun sales in Colorado. Read the full text of HB-1229 here.
Then, late Tuesday night, the committee passed a bill that bans the sale of high capacity gun magazines that hold more than 15 rounds or more than five shotgun shells. A person who already owns a high-capacity magazine fitting the description would be able to continue to own the magazine but would have to maintain continuous possession of it. Late Tuesday, HP-1224 was amended to increase the amount of rounds in a magazine to 15, instad of 10, and was also passed on a party line vote of 7 to 4, read the full text of the bill here.
Both bills now head to the House floor for another vote.
Rep. Rhonda Fields (D-Aurora) was a sponsor on both pieces of legislation and was not pleased with the amendment which added an additional five rounds to the maximum capacity of a gun magazine. "Many of those people are critically injured for life because of their wounds," The Denver Post reports that Field said. "These high-capacity magazines allow a gun to fire large amounts of bullets to kill people as fast as possible."
Although ultimately the bill was amended to extend the bullet limit in a magazine, chilling testimony from the Arapahoe County Coroner Michael Doberson echoed Fields' sentiments.
“Hardly a week goes by when I don’t see what a bullet can do to a human body,” Fox31 reports Doberson said. “These are basically military-style weapons that have been introduced into our civilian spaces, our streets, our shopping malls, our schools. These rounds have devastating effects on the human body, even when only one strikes. Can you imagine what happens when multiple bullets are fired from one of these high-capacity magazines? Well, I can.”
"Please pass this bill. I'm tired of taking bullets out of kids," Doberson said.
The universal background check bill, which GOP Rep. Bob Gardner attempted to amend, remained unchanged by the time the vote came in. Rep. Fields, whose son was murdered by a gunman in 2005, told The Denver Post in January that background checks on private gun sales was a "loophole" that needed to be closed.
The Huffington Post's Chris Kirkham reported that the private gun sale background check loophole creates an "invisible" firearms market that is severely lacking in regulation. Via Kirkham's report:
More than three-quarters of states have no laws requiring background checks or documentation during private party sales, increasing the risk of weapons falling into the hands of convicted felons, juveniles or those who are mentally ill. As lawmakers in Washington examine gun control measures in the wake of last week's school massacre in Connecticut, many advocates and researchers are pushing to extend federal regulations requiring background checks and registrations to private gun sales.
"Fixing this would be one of the single most important things we could do to address overall gun violence," said David Kennedy, director of the Center for Crime Prevention and Control at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York. "A lot of people don't understand that this is the way the world works. It means that people who everybody agrees shouldn't get guns have little trouble getting guns."
Under the current system, federal law on gun purchases extends only to the first point of sale. Federally licensed firearms dealers are required to perform background checks on prospective buyers to screen out those with felony records, a history of domestic violence or mental illness and several other categories. Dealers are also required to keep detailed records of customers.
On private party sales, none of those restrictions apply under federal rules. States come up with their own laws governing the secondary gun market, and the restrictions vary widely, leaving an uneven patchwork of regulations from state to state.
Colorado already requires background checks at gun shows, but there is no legislation in place that requires checks on a private party firearm sale.
There are several controversial gun bills up for debate this legislative session, including a controversial bill that would make owners, manufacturers and distributors of firearms civilly liable for damages caused by their weapons.
Just last week, NRA head David Keene was in Denver to speak with Gov. John Hickenlooper about the many bills that the state is considering and was critical of the measures. When asked about the proposed measure that would hold owners and manufacturers civilly liable, Keene said he thought the plan was "foolish" policy.
"You can't sue them (manufacturers and sellers) because someone bought a legal product and then did something wrong with it," Keene told The Denver Post.
The proposed state measure appears to be in conflict with a Federal law that was passed in 2005 after relentless lobbying by the NRA which grants gun companies rare legal protection from liability lawsuits that many manufacturers of other kinds of products do not have.
The legal constraints that the NRA helped establish for gun companies has frustrated victims of mass shootings in Newtown, Conn. and Aurora, Colo. who want the courts to hold gun makers more accountable and perhaps force them to adopt stricter gun safety standards, The Washington Post reported.
Keene was also critical of the increased wait times for background checks on gun purchases in Colorado stemming from a surge in sales in 2012 that ultimately maxed the system out last December.
"If I were a Colorado resident," Keene said to The Denver Post, "and told I had to wait an undetermined period of time to buy a gun, I would go to court."
The Colorado Bureau of Investigation, the agency which processes the background checks in the state, has had severely increased wait times on a background checks due to surging gun sales. A background check generally takes minutes in Colorado, but since end of December and into January, the CBI's queue had been hovering around 10,000 checks, causing a wait time of more than nine days. That more than doubles the wait time just from earlier in December when gun buyers saw background checks taking 100 hours or more.
The burden on the CBI, the lengthy wait times that already exist and the possibility of even lengthier wait times if a universal background check law were to be passed, was frequently brought up in testimony on Tuesday by opposition to the background check bill.
If the both House bills end up passing through the legislature and make it to Hickenlooper's desk, it appears likely that he will sign the bills into law.
Recently, Hickenlooper's stance on guns and gun control has been changing. During his State of the State address in January Hickenlooper made one of his boldest proclamations about gun control in Colorado, encouraging a serious discussion about guns and mental illness in the state legislature. "Let me prime the pump," Hickenlooper said. "Why not have universal background checks for all gun sales?"
"After Columbine, Colorado voters insisted that gun show sales be regulated, and launched an aggressive effort to prevent school bullying," Hickenlooper said. "We have shown in Colorado that we can learn from tragedy and make changes. Surely, Second Amendment advocates and gun control supporters can find common ground in support of this proposition: Let’s examine our laws and make the changes needed to keep guns out of the hands of dangerous people."
But the governor also said that keeping guns out of the hands of "dangerous people" isn't enough. "We have to do a better job of identifying and helping people who are a threat to themselves and others," Hickenlooper said. "That is why we are requesting your support for a comprehensive overhaul of our state’s mental health system. We ask you to pass legislation that will update civil commitment laws, make it easier to identify people with mental illness who are a danger to themselves and others and provide safer, more humane systems for their treatment. We need your continued support as well with sweeping changes made last year to the state’s child welfare system. Issues related to guns, mental health and child welfare have added challenges to the agenda we began two years ago."
But in December, things suddenly changed for Hickenlooper. Just a day before the Sandy Hook school shooting occurred and nearly five months after Aurora, Hickenlooper said that "the time is right" for state lawmakers to consider gun control measures -- the strongest stance Hickenlooper has taken on the issue to date, the Associated Press reported.
"When you look at what happened in Aurora, a great deal of that damage was from the large magazine on the AR-15 (rifle)," Hickenlooper said. "I think we need to have that discussion and say, 'Where is this appropriate?'"
Then, just days later on "State of the Union," with Candy Crowley the governor went on to say that enough time has passed in the state to start talking about gun control and safety. "We've had that distance since the shooting in Aurora and have really tried to look at what are the things that could make a difference and how should we begin this conversation," Hickenlooper said. "Certainly, things like high-capacity magazines, that comes up again and again and again, expanding background checks to make sure that guns to end up in the wrong people's hands. We have a whole list of efforts, almost $20 million in new programs around trying to put more support for people with mental illness. But that conversation about gun safety is going to continue."
The 5-point plan Hickenlooper and state health officials are proposing -- called “Strengthening Colorado’s Mental Health System: A Plan to Safeguard All Coloradans” -- would include the establishment of a state-wide mental health crisis hotline, opening five 24-hour urgent mental health care centers and substance abuse centers.
If approved by state lawmakers, the plan would also authorize the Colorado State Judicial System to transfer mental health commitment records electronically and directly to the Colorado Bureau of Investigation in real-time so the information is available for firearm purchase background checks conducted by Colorado InstaCheck.
Recent polling from Project New America/Chris Keating and The Denver Post found that a majority of Coloradans' favor stricter gun control.
Fox31 first reported on a survey from PNA/Chris Keating which asked 905 Colorado voters, in general, if they favor stricter gun control -- 55 percent of Colorado voters said they favor of stricter gun control, while only 40 percent were opposed.
The same poll also asked Colorado voters about specific gun law proposals and the margin of support was wide for nearly all the measures in question, according to PNA/Chris Keating:
- 95 percent of voters agree that people with "serious mental health problems" should be prevented from owning a gun.
- 80 percent of voters agree that judges should be able to order someone who is "convicted of domestic violence or given a restraining order" to surrender their guns to the court.
- 80 percent of voters agree that all private gun sales should go through a licensed dealer and be subject to a background check.
- 65 percent of voters agree that guns should be banned on college and university campuses.
- 61 percent of voters agree that the sale and possession of semi-automatic guns and assault rifles should be banned.
- 61 percent of voters agree that the sale and possession of high-capacity ammunition clips, which allow some guns to shoot more than 10 bullets before reloading, should be banned.
The PNA/Keating poll echoes similar sentiments found in a recent Denver Post poll which found greater support for gun control measures than for gun-owner rights. According to The Denver Post, 60 percent of Colorado voters support proposals that would: ban assault-style rifles, limit high-capacity magazines and require universal background checks on all gun sales.
Although the Post poll found that 50 percent of those who responded say it is more important to protect gun ownership to 45 percent who say it is more important to control gun ownership, those percentages have shifted significantly since the last time the Post conducted the same poll in September. Last September, the breakdown was 56 percent saying it was more important to protect gun rights to only 39 percent saying it was more important to control guns.