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February 27, 2023 12:47 PM UTC

A Few Honest Words About 2023's Gun Safety Legislation Package

  • by: Colorado Pols
Senate Democrats unveil 2023 gun safety legislation.

Last Thursday, Colorado Senate Democrats announced a quartet of bills to prevent and reduce the impact of gun violence, an issue that Colorado has led the nation as a model for reform–going all the way back to the passage by voters of a constitutional amendment closing the so-called “gun show loophole” in the wake of the 1998 Columbine High School massacre.

In 2013, in response to the mass shooting at an Aurora movie theater the previous year, Colorado passed landmark universal background check and gun magazine limit legislation that provoked a furious backlash from the gun lobby and short-term losses for Colorado Democrats politically. Having regained their mid-2010s losses with interest in just a few years, Colorado Democrats passed crucially important “red flag” legislation in 2019 creating a legal process to temporarily remove guns from individuals judged to be a threat to themselves or others. By this time, Republican threats of retaliation had lost their political bite, and a spate of attempted recalls that year sputtered out.

The last decade of intense partisan conflict over gun safety legislation in Colorado has taken place against the backdrop of a shifting national debate over guns, which culminated in the passage last year of the first significant federal legislation to address gun violence since the lapsed 1994 assault weapons ban. Both federally and in Colorado the issue has undeniably evolved in the direction of greater reform, driven by public opinion polling that consistently shows the public is ready to embrace more aggressive reforms than politicians are willing to risk politically.

But here in Colorado, where we’ve made progress on this issue the rest of the nation is still catching up to, the situation this year doesn’t neatly fit the script: some of the state’s foremost proponents of gun safety legislation, whose motives on the issue are unassailable, are not on board with a so-far-unintroduced statewide ban on assault weapons. As Colorado Public Radio’s Bente Birkeland reported last week:

[W]hile the overwhelming majority of Democratic lawmakers agree with an assault weapons ban in principle, some influential party members appear ready to stand in the way of advancing one this year, with one of the legislature’s strongest advocates saying he doesn’t think an outright ban is the right approach at this moment.

“We’ve got a lot of work to do, I think, before we step into that,” said Democratic state Sen. Tom Sullivan of Littleton, who mentioned giving the state licensing authority over gun stores as something he wants to see in place first. “If you look at those other nine states that have [assault weapons bans], they’ve already passed all of that kind of stuff we’re woefully behind on.”

Sullivan got involved in politics after his son, Alex, was killed in the Aurora Theater shooting. He is the other co-chair of the Gun Violence Prevention Caucus.

He emphasized that he supports an assault weapons ban in concept, but believes the best approach would be a federal law. “That’s really where we need it because as far as an enforcement mechanism to it, we need feds here in the state to enforce it.”

Speaking with the Denver Post’s Seth Klamann and Nick Coltrain for an in-depth story on the absence of the assault weapons ban bill from the package of bills announced at last Thursday’s press conference, Sen. Sullivan was a little more direct in explaining his opposition:

“I don’t know what they’re really trying to accomplish,” Sullivan said of efforts to define and limit assault weapon access. “I’m trying to save lives. And the way we save lives is by passing things like safe storage and red flag laws.”

He doesn’t disagree with an assault weapon ban in theory, but he said it needs to be a federal, not state, requirement. He and others raised practical questions, too, like local law enforcement’s ability to enforce a state-level ban. [Pols emphasis]

That last is a critical point. In the fall of 2019, 9NEWS’ Marshall Zelinger conducted a statewide investigation into compliance with the 2013 law limiting gun magazine capacity to fifteen rounds. Zelinger found that gun stores across the state were either skirting the 2013 law with workaround gimmicks like “magazine repair kits,” or just plain disregarding the law under the often-correct assumption that their county sheriff will not enforce it.

Which leads to this straightforward question that proponents of a statewide assault weapons ban, unfortunately, don’t have a good answer for: if the state can’t (or won’t) enforce the magazine limit, how can anyone reasonably expect a statewide assault weapons ban to be enforced? This is why Sen. Sullivan says we need to give the state the power to enforce state law through licensure of gun stores (see above) instead of relying on politician sheriffs who have decided they wield the power to arbitrate what laws they want to enforce.

With grandstanding politician sheriffs refusing with apparent impunity to enforce laws they don’t like and easy access to anything we prohibit in Colorado across the border with fireworks in Wyoming, Sen. Sullivan makes a compelling argument that restrictions on gun products are more likely to be successfully enforced at the federal level. Sullivan has been consistent on this position throughout his time in office. At the very least, we would argue that until we enforce the statewide magazine limit legislators sacrificed their careers to pass ten years ago, it’s folly to expect lawmakers to pass new statewide gun hardware restrictions to be simply ignored at will by their would-be enforcers. By focusing on access to weapons by youth, slowing down gun acquisition by a few often critical days, improving the state’s proven-effective “red flag” law, and giving victims of gun violence legal tools for accountability from manufacturers, Democrats are focusing on policies that will make the greatest real-world impact.

This may not be the most satisfying answer, but it’s the right answer.


5 thoughts on “A Few Honest Words About 2023’s Gun Safety Legislation Package

  1. I absolutely agree with Sen. Sullivan that a national ban is needed. But that’s not going to happen in the foreseeable future.

    However, a statewide ban would give local law enforcement the tool they need to remove assault weapons from public use as they come across them and not have to wait until there is a pile of bodies before they can act.

  2. Chances of passing an “assault weapon” ban seem iffy, and chances of having it upheld in the courts at the current time and with the current views of the Supreme Court’s functional majority are remote, at best. 

    Seems to me that setting criteria for licensing weapons and ammunition sales is more plausible.  We allow people to operate different sorts of vehicles with different levels of licensure and insurance. Colorado takes different approaches to bicycles, motorcycles, personal cars and trucks, racing cars and “heavy” trucks.  We ought to be able to have variations in access and use of different sorts of weapons.

    Link it to levels of potential harm. Colorado could have a debate on what is appropriate based on projectile speed & weight within varying amounts of time.  Single shot 22-caliber rifles for target shooting and basic training are vastly different than single-shot 50-caliber sniper rifles. Weapons firing multiple rounds at high speed are very different than a double-barreled shotgun.  Hollow-point rounds obviously vary from solid rounds.

    Requiring instruction on legal expectations about use and misuse, a demonstration of skills, and proof of whatever might be “adequate insurance” seems to me a reasonable approach to maintaining Second Amendment access to weapons and increasing safety.

    1. I'm a big fan of treating guns like we treat cars. Let's have county registrations for guns that pay for county gun ranges and safety classes. Let's require registration for semi-automatic guns the same way we require registrations for cars. Have your gun but don't have it registered? Law enforcement can impound it and you can get it back once you have proper registration! Don't want to keep your gun registered? Then you must not be a responsible gun owner!

  3. We're currently on the hot rails to "There's no such thing as constitutional firearm regulation," so this won't matter much unless/until a significant number of elected officials adopt a "John Marshall has made his decision; now let him enforce it" attitude toward the federal judiciary and constitutional adjudication.

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