For the seventh time in nearly 30 years, Coloradans are mourning in the aftermath of a mass shooting.
“I lived across the street from that King Soopers with my girlfriend at the time, now wife, and my grandpa lived up the street from there,” says Colorado Speaker of the House Alec Garnett about the Boulder grocery store where a gunman killed 10 people on March 22, including one police officer. “I’ve probably been to that store like 500 times.”
“As an alumni of University of Colorado Boulder and someone who frequently goes up to Boulder for respite, for fun, and even for work, it was pretty shocking to me,” state Representative Leslie Herod told 5280 just days after the shooting. “I was recently in the area.”
The proximity to another mass shooting—and the continued heartbreak that comes with it—has Democratic lawmakers looking for ways to make sure it doesn’t happen again. “We know we have an issue with the proliferation of guns throughout Colorado, definitely in the [Denver] metro area,” Herod says. “When things happen that rock a community to its core, like what happened in Boulder, it is incumbent upon us, elected officials, to act.”
Giffords Law Center, a San Francisco–based organization that works to prevent gun violence, recently awarded Colorado a C+ for how well the state’s gun legislation actually prevents gun deaths and injuries. The Centennial State’s gun death rate per 100,000 people is 14.22, while the national average is 11.9 per 100,000 people, according to Giffords.
That grade comes after legislators have passed several gun laws in the last decade. In 2013, the year after a gunman killed 12 people at an Aurora movie theater, the Colorado General Assembly approved five bills, including one that prohibits the sale, transfer, and possession of ammunition magazines larger than 15 rounds and another mandating universal background checks. Two years ago, legislators also ratified what’s known as a red flag law, which gives immediate family members and law enforcement the power to petition a court to temporarily take guns from a person who is deemed to be a threat to themselves or others.
At the same time, Colorado Democratic senators Angela Giron and John Morse were recalled in 2013 because of their support for gun control laws. Just three months later, state Senator Evie Hudak stepped down before enough signatures could be gathered to potentially recall her from office.
“Many of Colorado’s state legislators who are in the House and Senate today served alongside Giron and Morse, and are keenly aware of the politics around gun policy,” says Scott Martinez, a former Denver city attorney and gun law expert. “With that as a backdrop, Colorado is in a very different place than it was in 2012 and 2013.”
Now, in the aftermath of the Boulder shooting, Herod advises that whatever action is taken needs to be completely sussed out. “We need to do so in a way that is reasoned, that is informed, and that is responsible,” she says. “I think there are a lot of things that we need to address related to the gun issues in our community. One bill is not going to solve it.”
In February, legislators, including Herod and state Representative Tom Sullivan, put forth a bill that would require Coloradans to report any stolen or misplaced firearms to law enforcement. (Herod told 5280 that the bill passed in committee in late March.) Now, Garnett says some Democrats are considering a ban on assault weapons in Colorado. Denver disallowed assault weapons—including assault rifles with a magazine capacity of more than 15 rounds—in 2006.
Senate Majority Leader Steve Fenberg, who shopped at the Boulder King Soopers regularly, said he is a proponent of having a statewide ban. He also feels a sense of urgency given last month’s tragic events.
Colorado Republicans, however, have long opposed gun control legislation, worrying that strict laws would impose on Coloradans’ Second Amendment rights. Republican state Senator John Cook told CPR in late March that weapon bans are ineffective and “end up punishing good, law-abiding Coloradans.”
At the beginning of this year’s legislative session, Republicans introduced a few bills that would weaken current gun control policies. For instance, House Bill 1038, which was sponsored by state Representative Patrick Neville, would allow people with concealed-carry permits to have guns on them on school grounds, something Colorado law currently prohibits. Additionally, state Representative Ron Hanks’ new House Bill 1070 would repeal Colorado’s current large-capacity magazine ban. Both haven’t gained much traction in the General Assembly, which is controlled by Democrats.
But Martinez, who has a background in enforcing gun laws in Denver, believes that Colorado voters, as well as Americans across the country, are demanding stronger gun laws. “My hope is that our current legislators will meet the voters where they are and pass legislation that helps make us safer,” he says.
While Colorado Democrats are looking for ways to make that happen, they also believe the federal government can help. State Representative Sullivan, who lost his son in the Aurora theater shooting and has spent his entire political career advocating for gun control, says the federal government needs to be involved in imposing stricter gun policies. “One of the easiest [laws] is a common sense background check. Hopefully, the federal government will follow the lead that we’ve already set with limiting high-capacity magazines.”
Garnett and Herod echoed Sullivan’s call for the federal government to help with gun control. “To be clear, driving up to Wyoming to get a firearm is not out of the question for anyone. It’s important that we have real solutions that don’t just make us feel better as legislators, but actually keep our communities safer,” Herod says.
Just three weeks ago, the United States House of Representatives passed a bipartisan bill that would require universal background checks for gun sales. The same bill was also approved by the House in 2019, but didn’t make it to the Senate floor. It is also unlikely to be ratified this year given that some Republican support in the Senate would be needed.
Martinez, however, believes there are additional policies that could prevent gun violence. “There has been 30 years of loosening gun policy to allow guns on demand [nationwide],” he says. According to Martinez, the Boulder shooter had an assault-style pistol, which he says technically isn’t classified as an assault rifle but functions like one. He believes laws should help get rid of loopholes so that weapons like the Ruger AR-556 pistol—an assault-style pistol that the Boulder shooter allegedly used (police have not confirmed that yet)—aren’t legally downplayed and put in the same category as a pistol or short-barrel rifle. “This would be a good place to start,” Martinez says.
In conjunction with passing new policies to keep Colorado safe, Fenberg believes the General Assembly could also study why mass shootings keep happening in the Centennial State. “I think Columbine is in the psyche of our entire country, but especially Colorado. Aurora is now in our psyche. Boulder is in our psyche. Colorado Springs, Planned Parenthood is in our psyche.” he says. “And I think our job as leaders is to study why that is, why that it’s in our history, and why it keeps happening.”
But first, Fenberg wants to pass some legislation this year. “There’s not one single policy that can prevent tragedies from ever occurring,” he says. “But I do think a set of comprehensive policies can get us to a place where our communities are much safer. And that’s the goal.”