Opinion: New gun laws?

Mike Littwin, courtesy the Colorado Sun
News  /  Opinion

It takes a horror like the Club Q shootings to revive discussion of gun safety laws.

News that the state Legislature will once again look hard at gun-safety legislation is hardly surprising in the wake of the mass murder at Club Q.

If you look back at the years when the Colorado Legislature passed versions of gun laws, it almost always followed a mass shooting that shocked the state into action. Sadly, Colorado has had more than its fair share of shocking gun massacres.

But it hasn’t always been easy. For those of you who were at the state Capitol back in 2013, you might still have ear damage from the honking horns outside the building, not to mention the raised voices from angry witnesses inside, objecting to significant — by Western state standards, anyway — changes to gun laws following the Aurora theater shooting.

Two Democrats lost their seats to recalls that go-around, and another resigned before a recall election could be called.

And John Hickenlooper, the Democratic governor at the time, was, let’s say, not a little nervous about what it all might mean electorally, although eventually he did get behind most of the legislation.

So now, after another mass shooting that shocked Colorado, after the further shock of understanding that El Paso County officials might well have used the 2019 red flag law to remove guns from the Club Q shooter, the Legislature is definitely open for gun-safety business.

And 2013 is a long time ago, back when Dudley Brown and the Rocky Mountain Gun Owners were a force in the state. Now they’re basically a bad joke.

The struggling NRA may still have huge sway in Congress, but not so much in the Colorado Legislature, which is now, after the most recent GOP electoral disaster in the state, even more overwhelmingly Democratic.

It’s almost a sure thing that in the coming legislative session, lawmakers will toughen the red flag law, which is now ignored or worse in red counties across the state, many of which call themselves Second Amendment sanctuary counties. It was ignored in June 2021 when the Club Q shooter threatened their mother with a bomb and then forced a standoff with El Paso County Sheriff’s deputies.

As the red flag law (officially known as an extreme risk protection order or ERPO) reads now, a law enforcement official, a family member or a household member can ask a judge to order the confiscation of guns from those seen as dangerous to themselves or others for as long as a year. After 14 days, the ruling can be appealed.

We heard from El Paso County Sheriff Bill Elder that he has never asked for the red flag law to be enforced because, without the benefit of attending law school, he has determined the law is unconstitutional. That’s even though Colorado Springs police have used it. And even though it has been reported that the shooter, Anderson Lee Aldrich, told family they intended to be the next mass killer.

Meanwhile, 9News reported that El Paso County has the lowest percentage of judge-approved red-flag cases among the Front Range’s large counties. That is apparently because judges are more likely to take the word of law enforcement than that of a family or household member.

But now Gov. Jared Polis has gone on record saying the law should have been applied to the Club Q shooter, even though the 2021 case has been sealed and many details are unknown. Polis is right. There’s more than enough known. And legislative leaders, who say they were ready to look at gun-safety legislation even before the Club Q shooting, are certainly ready to act now.

But what to do? Fixing the red flag law is, at once, easy and not so easy. No one can be forced to ask a judge to invoke the red flag law. But those eligible to ask a judge can be expanded. Polis mentioned district attorneys. Others are calling for teachers and social workers to be eligible.

There are other bills likely to be considered, including raising the age to legally buy a rifle or shotgun from 18 to 21, which is the same age required to purchase a handgun. Rep. Tom Sullivan, whose son Alex was murdered at the Aurora theater shooting and who is pushing a bill on the age requirement, told The Colorado Sun’s Jesse Paul that he had the votes last year for a similar bill, but that party leaders and the governor couldn’t come to an agreement.

This year, I’d bet on an agreement. What may be tougher, though, is one law that’s definitely needed — a ban on semi-automatic assault-style weapons like the AR-15, the weapon of choice in most mass murders. That’s the law that Joe Biden is pushing, to little effect, nationally. It’s a law that Biden helped get passed as a senator in 1994, but the law had a sunset provision after 10 years. And in the years since, there has been way too much darkness in Congress to renew it. Most Republicans have been opposed. And many Democrats were afraid to push it.

But the mood in the country has clearly changed. Maybe because a generation of Americans has grown up in the post-Columbine era. Democrats see gun legislation as a winning issue. Certainly, the argument can be made that relatively few of the nation’s homicides or suicides are tied to assault weapons. But, as Biden knows, passing a law to ban them would be more than symbolic.

It would matter because as a nation, and as a state, we tend to need a mass murder to remind us that something should be done. Whatever happens, little changes in Congress. Relatively minor gun-law changes were made last year, in a bipartisan vote, to much fanfare.

Colorado has passed significant legislation over the years. And if Polis hasn’t yet asked for an assault-style weapon ban, that doesn’t mean he won’t. It might just depend on how loud the Legislature makes its voice heard this year and, more important, how much we hear from Colorado voters.

Mike Littwin’s column was produced for The Colorado Sun, a reader-supported news organization committed to covering the people, places and policies of Colorado. Learn more at coloradosun.com.

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