Colorado Gun Laws: What Do They Mean For the National Gun Debate?

Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper is caught in the crossfire of the gun debate in his state. 

The Democratic governor of the purple state has long been in the awkward position of being able to only please about half of his constituency. The more partisan and heated an issue, the more flack the governor must take from the interests holding a view different from his position. This partisan push-back is perhaps most apparent in the gun control debate. Hickenlooper may find himself dodging rhetorical projectiles from both angry gun owners and unsatisfied gun-safety proponents.

On March 20, Hickenlooper signed into law two new gun safety bills. The first bill requires background checks on all gun sales, not just those that take place at a gun shop or gun show. The bill requires checks on private sales, such as those on the internet and person-to-person, which are estimated to make up 40% of all gun sales. The second bill makes it illegal to sell or transfer a gun magazine holding more than 15 rounds.

The recent Colorado gun legislation, along with several other measures that did not pass the state legislature, was proposed in the wake of the tragic shooting of 12 people at a movie theatre in Aurora in July 2012. Colorado has a complex relationship with firearms.  The Aurora shooting coupled with the notorious Columbine shooting of 1999 cast guns in a shadow of ill repute amongst Coloradans. However, Colorado has large rural populations and is a mecca for hunters, so there are many Coloradans for whom guns are a treasured way of life. 

Because of this complex relationship with guns in Colorado, Hickenlooper’s decision to sign these two gun control procedures into law were met with very mixed reviews. 

"I think it will make it more difficult for people to get guns who shouldn't have them, and that's really the goal," said Democratic Rep. Beth McCann, in an interview with Fox News, on the expanded background checks.

“We're obviously very disappointed. I think we demonstrated time and time again all of the issues associated with" the magazine limits, said Republican Rep. Mark Waller, the GOP leader in the House, as reported also by Fox.

"They're doing this without any proof that banning this is going to have any impact on public safety," Waller said.

The most vocal responses to Hickenlooper’s actions are, obviously, not coming from elected officials during press conferences. I sat down with two influential voices in the Colorado gun debate.

“I think he stepped on his own dick,” said Dan Baum, resident of Boulder, Colorado and author of Gun Guys. “The Democrats will pay in the next election. There are no public safety benefits” in either of these measures. “The question then is: to whom are you gesturing?”

Baum, a politically liberal voter on almost every issue except guns, believes that the “gun guys” are far more intense in their pro-gun feelings than the anti-gun folks are in their anti-gun feelings.

Baum’s reasoning comes from his perception of a deep-seated tribe mentality in Colorado. He sees the state as separated into the more traditional Westerners, who have been in Colorado and feel connected to a sort of “Wild West” mentality and the Easterners who have moved to Colorado and are trying to “accelerate East Coast liberalism in the West.”

For the anti-gun tribe, according to Baum, “Guns represent a world view that they don’t like. People who don’t like guns just don’t like guns. It has nothing to do with safety.”

The attitude of the anti-gun tribe is what offends the “gun guys” tribe. Baum continued to say, “To presume to make rules about something you don’t understand is the height of elitism. It’s a trust issue. The anti-gun people are saying that the gun guys can’t be trusted with guns, which they know how to use. It’s an attack on them [the gun guys], not guns.”

Baum elaborated further on exactly why Hickenlooper’s decision to sign these bills is so offensive to the gun guys. “The bulge of the gun guy demographic is middle-aged white men who didn’t finish college. That demographic has been rubbed raw. Guns make them feel powerful. This legislation doesn’t make anyone safer, so [by passing it] he [Hickenlooper] wants us to go fuck ourselves.”

Not all agree with Baum’s assertion that the Colorado legislation has no safety benefit.  Tom Mauser, an outspoken anti-gun activist in Colorado, attended the signing of these two bills after testifying on their behalf and lobbying for their passage. Mauser became involved in the gun debate after his son, Daniel, was killed in the Columbine shooting in 1999.

“I think these two bills will help,” he said in a phone interview. “Smaller magazines are safer. Think of what happened in Tuscon. The shooter was stopped when he stopped to reload.” (In 2011, Jared Lee Lougner opened fire on congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords during a constituent meeting outside a grocery store, killing six people and critically wounding Giffords.) “My opponents say that stopping to reload will not stop the carnage, but that assumes that the gunmen are well-trained. Not all of these shooters are well trained.” 

“They also say that there isn’t a big difference between 10 and 30 rounds. I think those 5-15 lives that those extra rounds could take is a hell of a difference. They aren’t thinking in terms of a lost loved one. Your loved one could be one of those 5-15.”

The argument that we can’t go back in time and prevent shootings from happening is one that is often posed by the pro-gun forces in America.

“The intent is not to prevent something that already happened. We are trying to stop the next one,” said Mauser.

Mauser also supports the more stringent background checks signed into law by the governor. 

“Would you ride on an airplane if only 60% of the passengers went through security?  Some criminals do try and make prohibited purchases. In fact, some 200 potential gun owners who had to go back to the shop to pick up their guns for whatever reason were arrested at the store” after their background checks revealed them as criminals. “Not all criminals are smart,” asserts Mauser. “We shouldn’t be making it easy for them to get guns even if it is an inconvenience to some of us. We are trading the inconvenience for greater safety.”

When asked whether he thought the gun safety measures were a good decision on Hickenlooper’s part politically, Mauser responded in the affirmative.

“He [Hickenlooper] is simply supporting the majority. Eighty percent of Coloradans support background checks and 66% support ammo limits. It isn’t the governor but the Republicans [the gun guys, in other words] who are out of touch with what constituents want.”

The Colorado gun debate provides some interesting insight on the current gun safety debate in the Senate. We may see some similar backlash nationally with regard to the federal government that Hickenlooper has seen locally.