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Gun-control bills pass Colorado House: Was Aurora a tipping point?

The Colorado House passed four gun-control measures Monday, a notable shift for a typically libertarian, pro-gun state. Has the political climate changed enough for bills to pass state Senate?

It’s hard to imagine a state that better symbolizes America’s conflicting relationship with guns and gun control than Colorado.

A Western state with a strong libertarian streak, it boasts a large number of gun enthusiasts and hunters, and many residents have a knee-jerk reaction against government infringement of individual liberties.

It’s also been host to two of the worst gun massacres in recent years ­– at Columbine High School and the Aurora movie theater. And, as of the most recent election, has a state government entirely controlled by Democrats.

Now, Colorado is on its way to enacting a package of gun-control bills that would make the state significantly tougher than any of its Western neighbors. As lawmakers in a number of other states introduce bills trying to preemptively exempt their state from any possible future federal gun restrictions, it’s notable that Colorado is going the other direction. And the mass shootings are a primary driver. 

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On Monday, the Colorado House of Representatives passed four bills that would place some limits on gun ownership: ammunition magazines limited to 15 rounds; a requirement for background checks for all gun transactions; a requirement that gun purchasers pay for their own background checks; and a ban on concealed guns in stadiums and on college campuses.

“Enough is enough. I’m sick and tired of bloodshed,” said Democratic Rep. Rhonda Fields, a sponsor of both the magazine-capacity bill and the universal background check bill. Representative Fields is from the district where the Aurora shooting took place, and her son was killed in a 2005 shooting.

Debate on the House floor was heated, and several Democrats sided with Republicans (all of whom voted against the bills).

Now, the bills move on to the state Senate­, which is also controlled by Democrats, albeit by a slimmer margin.

“These are draconian controls and not things we’re feeling happy about,” says Dudley Brown, executive director of Rocky Mountain Gun Owners.

Mr. Brown says he holds out some hope that the Senate may block at least one of the bills, but either way, his organization plans to target everyone who votes for them in marginal districts in the 2014 elections.

Mr. Brown opposes all the bills, though he says he finds the magazine limits the “most ludicrous.” He notes that his organization ran tests comparing a 10-round magazine that was changed three times while firing with a 30-round magazine, and found that the difference in the time it took to empty the rounds was about 1.8 seconds.

“None [of these bills] would have stopped any of these mass shootings,” he says.

But for Tom Mauser, whose son, Daniel, was killed during the Columbine shooting in 1999, that’s the wrong question to be asking.

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“If people want to focus just on particulars of any one case, you can always find a reason why it wouldn’t have worked,” says Mr. Mauser, the spokesperson for Colorado Ceasefire, a gun-control advocacy group. “We’re not trying to solve any of those. It’s how do we prevent the future ones. Are we going to make it easier for these to happen or more difficult?”

Moreover, he says, focusing just on the mass shootings ignores the many other gun deaths ­that occur — about 30 a day.

Mauser is particularly pleased by the bill requiring universal background checks. Just two weeks before his son was killed, he says, Daniel brought up background checks and the many loopholes in the Brady Bill at the dinner table.

The limits on magazine capacity he sees as common sense. High-capacity magazines, he says, “are intended for war, not for our streets.”

Still, Mauser is cautious about the bills’ chances, given the number of times he’s seen legislation killed in the past. And even if all four bills are passed, he says, “it’s a small incremental step.”

Currently, Colorado’s gun laws earn it a “D,” according to grades given by the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, which ranks Colorado 22nd out of 50 states in terms of how strict its laws are.

Only three states ­– New Jersey, California, and Massachusetts — get an A-.

But even with both houses under Democratic control, passage is tight. And Gov. John Hickenlooper, also a Democrat, has said he’s not sure whether he’ll sign the college-campus ban, though he supports the other bills.

The universal background check measure passed by just 33 to 32. In the Senate, where Democrats have a 20-to-15 margin, just three Democrats voting against any of the bills would be enough to defeat them.

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“This is part of our heritage. This is part of what it took to settle this land. I cannot turn my back on that,” said Democratic Rep. Ed Vigil during the House debate on the bills, explaining why he broke with party lines to oppose them.