Colorado Democrats introduce gun legislation, assault weapons ban in limbo

When Colorado Democrats rolled out their gun law reform legislation Thursday, it lacked a proposal already subject to much consternation — one to define and prohibit the sale of assault weapons.

Six weeks after an initial draft was released without the sponsors’ permission, the assault weapons bill has still not been introduced in the House. In the interim, Republicans have used the proposed ban as a punching bag, while top Democrats have coalesced around a cache of gun reform measures that include age limits, waiting periods and expanding the state’s red-flag law.

That’s moved the ban to the margins of the party’s historic effort to address gun violence. One of the measure’s initial sponsors — Rep. Andy Boesenecker, who previewed the bill for the Denver Post a month ago — has pulled his name from the bill. He declined to comment on the measure this week. The measure’s remaining primary House sponsor, Denver Democratic Rep. Elisabeth Epps, has grown increasingly frustrated about the bill’s status and feels the policy has been de facto sidelined by House leadership. She said she’s had tense discussions with Speaker Julie McCluskie about the proposal but that it’s now on track to be introduced in the coming days.

For Democrats, the bill stands at the intersection of policy and politics. On the one hand, assault-weapon bans are broadly popular among Democratic voters, in America and in Colorado, who have been on the front lines of America’s mass shooting crisis for more than two decades. Colorado’s two U.S. senators have both signed on to federal legislation to ban assault weapons, a measure supported by President Joe Biden and leading gun control groups.

On the other hand, the policy is deeply contentious — even in already tense gun-control debates — and, some lawmakers argue, will not do as much to prevent suicides and day-to-day gun violence as other bills. Those measures are already expected to invite hours of testimony and floor debate, without the additional tension of an assault weapons ban.

Gov. Jared Polis has given rhetorical support to the other gun bills. Asked for comment Friday, his spokesman sent a statement about Thursday’s package that didn’t mention the assault weapons bill. Asked specifically about that proposal, the spokesman said the governor’s office had nothing to add. Some Democratic lawmakers have expressed concern about the details of the policy, like how it would be enforced, and its path in the Senate. Rep. Meg Froelich, who said Democrats are in a “golden moment” to address gun reform, said lawmakers want to “progress (on) what’s proven to reduce gun violence, what saves lives and what needs to be in place in order for the different policies to be enforceable.”

Republican opposition to Democrats’ gun bills is assured, with or without a measure to ban the sale of assault weapons. Rep. Mike Lynch, the top Republican in the House, pledged to mount a “vigorous” fight to what his party sees as infringements to the Second Amendment, and a leading gun rights group has been fundraising since early January to fund its planned lawsuits.

Rep. Jennifer Bacon, a Denver Democrat and the House’s assistant majority leader, said if the legislature doesn’t pass the assault weapons bill, then lawmakers will have to explain why to the constituents who just handed them historic power in the Capitol. Epps said she was confident that, once introduced, the bill would have the support of Democratic lawmakers.

But it’s unclear, she continued, whether the bill has support from “our own internal leadership.” The proposal was one of Epps and Boesenecker’s early priorities, Epps said. It was ready to be introduced at the start of the session in early January but was delayed at the request of leadership, she said. Members of the Democratic caucus had already privately set their gun control policy preferences, Epps said, with the assault weapons ban ranking in the top five.

The other four bills in that list were unveiled Thursday.

“In reality, I have 45 colleagues who care deeply about Colorado,” Epps said of House Democrats, “who care deeply about their constituents and who have to navigate a world in which — when leadership only highlights four bills, it doesn’t take a political genius to understand which side we’re supposed to be on when it comes to the fifth bill.”

In a statement Wednesday, McCluskie said she was “committed to a fair process for every bill that reaches my desk for introduction.” She said the assault weapons bill would be introduced shortly after it’s finalized and that she understood that “the sponsor is still making changes to the bill.”

Asked if the bill was undergoing any additional changes, Epps said no. She wouldn’t go into detail about her conversations with Boesenecker other than to say he still broadly supports the policy and that the two had agreed that Epps serving as prime sponsor represented the bill’s “best path forward.” The two huddled on the House floor Wednesday afternoon, shortly before a spokesman confirmed Boesenecker had dropped off the bill.

For lawmakers who’ve coalesced around the other gun violence bills introduced Thursday, the goal is to take iterative, proven steps to reduce gun violence in the state, said Sen. Tom Sullivan, a Centennial Democrat. He contrasted that approach with splashier efforts, like the assault weapons ban. States with those types of bans, he said, have generally tried other laws first — steps that Colorado still hasn’t taken.

While gun violence from assault weapons generally drives national discourse — Sullivan’s son was killed in the Aurora theater shooting — they make up a small fraction of all firearms and firearm deaths, he said.

“I don’t know what they’re really trying to accomplish,” Sullivan said of efforts to define and limit assault weapon access. “I’m trying to save lives. And the way we save lives is by passing things like safe storage and red flag laws.”

He doesn’t disagree with an assault weapon ban in theory, but he said it needs to be a federal, not state, requirement. He and others raised practical questions, too, like local law enforcement’s ability to enforce a state-level ban.

As for internal divisions about moving ahead with the assault weapon bill, he characterized it as a debate, and “debate is healthy.” Rep. Steven Woodrow, a Denver Democrat and member of the gun violence prevention caucus with Sullivan and Epps, said there have been “honest disagreements” about policy, strategy and timing.

Supporters of the bill — like Epps and fellow Denver Democratic Rep. Javier Mabrey — argue that a ban on the sale of assault weapons is evidence-based. After all, Mabrey said, they’re a constant in mass shootings.

Epps said she wanted the ban to be part of the broader gun control effort undertaken by the legislature this year.

“I don’t know anyone who’s advocating for only an assault weapons ban,” she said. “I, for one, am interested in committing to all of the things that are going to interrupt this uniquely American phenomenon of gun violence.”

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