Democrats debate gun bills after assault weapon sale ban proposed

Early and pointedly, Colorado Democrats staked gun violence reduction as a top priority this legislative session. But early proposals have lawmakers disagreeing on the best way to achieve that.

A Democratic lawmaker recently previewed a bill that would ban the sale, transfer and manufacture of assault weapons in Colorado, though it wouldn’t affect possession. Others are working on proposals around expanding the state’s red flag law, instituting waiting periods and setting universal age limits. Nothing has been formally introduced yet.

“I think everybody in the Democratic Party wants to do everything we possibly can to reduce gun violence,” said Senate President Steve Fenberg, a Boulder Democrat. “I don’t think there’s any disagreement on that. I think the question is around strategy.”

Fenberg doesn’t object to a prohibition on assault weapons or their sale — he said he’d vote for a ban if it were on the senate floor, and supports it as federal policy — but it’s not his top priority for the state. The other measures would be more effective, he said. Short term, he doesn’t think it’ll detract from work on the other bills, either.

Instead, he worries about it shaping future debates and that discussions around bans lead to political entrenchment. It turns a complex policy debate into a binary for-or-against conversation on gun bans.

Policymakers shouldn’t shy away from the debate, but “I don’t know that it deserves as much space in the public health-, science-based debate around what saves the most lives,” he said.

Rep. Andrew Boesenecker, a Fort Collins Democrat, helped draft the ban on the sale, transfer and manufacture of assault weapons in Colorado. The proposal includes definitions for that type of firearm

He said he doesn’t see the various initiatives working against each other, and specifically lauded waiting periods. But that doesn’t erase the need to act on assault weapons, he argued.

“What we’re hearing is that more and more, mass shootings are an issue of critical importance to folks across our state,” Boesenecker said. “Now, we might disagree on how to get to a solution there and no one bill is going to solve every problem related to gun violence. But this is a piece of legislation I think we have to be talking about as a state, and certainly at the General Assembly.”

State Sen. Tom Sullivan, a Centennial Democrat and stalwart for laws aimed at reducing gun violence, questioned whether an assault weapons ban would be the most effective measure versus stronger red flag laws, waiting periods, and age limits. His son was among those killed in the 2012 Aurora theater shooting.

Assault weapons, while accounting for a lot of debate, make up a small percentage of firearms in the country and a small percentage of shooting deaths, he said. By and large, everyday shooting deaths are too ignored in the country, Sullivan said.

He noted the national news of a shooting in Yakima, Washington, that left four dead, including the alleged shooter. While those deaths are tragic, another 100 people likely died from gun violence and more were likely injured in other shootings, Sullivan said, referring to recent annual firearm fatalities.

“We need to be talking about suicides, we need to be talking about domestic violence, we need to be talking about accidental discharge,” Sullivan said.

And advocates need to do it in a way that leaves room for Republicans, he said, noting that older white rural males have a far higher likelihood of dying by suicide than urbanites. Sullivan isn’t opposed to a ban on assault weapons — he advocates for it at the federal level — but it’s not a way forward in Colorado, he argued.

“We’ve got a long way to go to try to reach those people,” Sullivan said. “Saying you’re going to ban assault weapons isn’t the pathway to get them to join us on this fight against the public health crisis that is gun violence.”

Senate Minority Leader Paul Lundeen, a Monument Republican, declined to discuss gun policy until bills are introduced in the chamber. House Minority Leader Mike Lynch, a Wellington Republican, said his caucus is committed to protecting Second Amendment rights.

“We will not support any bill that undermines the freedoms of Coloradans to protect their families and property,” he said in a statement that also called rumored legislation “radical.”

Gun rights groups also have pledged lawsuits over anything they view as infringing on Second Amendment rights.

Other states have enacted various assault weapon bans, but they all enacted other legislation to get there, Sullivan said. He noted recall efforts in 2013 over a slate of gun control proposals that cost Democrats seats in the Senate. It cost the party control of the chamber, and put gun control advocates “in disarray.” Things have changed since then, he said, and Colorado advocates are moving forward.

Meanwhile, Sullivan said the governor has specifically endorsed age limits on all firearm purchases.

Gov. Jared Polis has also specifically backed including district attorneys among those who can file extreme risk protection orders under the state’s red flag law, and wants action on untraceable homemade or unregistered guns. Polis has otherwise steered away from discussing any form of assault weapon bans in Colorado.

Conor Cahill, the governor’s spokesperson, said Polis is conceptually supportive of a uniform age limit for firearms and looks forward to working with lawmakers on the measure. He noted that Colorado already restricts handgun sales to 21 and older.

“Beyond that, he will review bills as legislators discuss them with him as they move through the legislative process and will continue to partner with the legislature on common sense, evidenced-based ways to reduce violent crime while protecting our Second Amendment rights,” Cahill said in a statement.

Speaker Julie McCluskie, a Democrat from Dillon, declined to weigh in on the sales ban specifically until the bill is formally introduced. She called gun violence prevention “probably one of the most powerful conversations we’ll have this year” — but a conversation that can take many paths.

“It’s important to recognize the significance of getting policy right and making sure that we’re moving at the appropriate pace and that we are thinking — I want to say strategically, but it’s not just about passing a bill. It’s about doing the policy right,” McCluskie said.

House Majority Leader Monica Duran, a Wheat Ridge Democrat, likewise wanted to see a specific bill introduced before weighing in on the proposal. The voters have spoken in wanting Democrats to address the matter, she said — Democratic majorities expanded in both chambers last election — but legislators must be mindful of how it goes about it, she said.

“How can we navigate (gun violence prevention) in a way that isn’t really making people feel like we’re infringing upon anyone’s rights? I think that’s really important,” Duran said, adding that public safety is still the top priority.

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