Accused Aurora movie theater shooter James E. Holmes appears in Arapahoe… (RJ Sangosti/AP )
DENVER — There could hardly be a starker divide on guns than in Colorado.
Metropolitan Denver, home to hipster cafes and pot dispensaries, has been hit by two of the most horrific mass shootings in recent years, Columbine and Aurora. Leave the city and you get to areas where the nearest police officer could be a 20-minute drive and owning a weapon for self- defense becomes more than a talking point.
The state legislature is now caught up in a bitter struggle over whether to tighten its gun laws. While advocates acknowledge the proposals are modest, if enacted they would represent the first gun-control measures adopted in the American interior since the Newtown massacre in December.
It’s been more than a decade since Colorado tightened its gun laws. And the outcome of the current battle remains much in doubt. Seven gun-control bills are scheduled for a vote in the state Senate on Friday. Four of those measures already passed the state House last month by a narrow margin and the Senate vote is expected to be even closer.
The ultimate fate of the measures in this political swing state could say much about whether the Connecticut killings have fundamentally reshaped the national debate over firearms and how gun-control efforts will fare beyond the state’s borders.
Colorado’s legislation mirrors much of what has been proposed at the federal level in the U.S. Senate, including universal background checks and limits on large ammunition clips, and many of the arguments made by both sides are similar. But here, they often have more of an edge.
“We spent the last ten years playing defense,” said Tom Mauser, an advocate for tighter gun laws since his son was killed in the shootings at Columbine High School in 1999. “It was a game changer in Aurora, and then Connecticut just sealed it.”
In recent months, Mauser has been joined by family members of the Aurora shooting victims, such as Dave Hoover, who has been meeting with lawmakers in the months since his nephew was shot dead during the killings at the movie theater last summer.
Advocates of tougher laws have been surprised by the groundswell of support. In January, more than 200 people turned out at a Denver church to join a lobbying push, more than double what organizers had expected.
“Sandy Hook pushed me over the edge,” said Christine Lundgren, 48, a real estate agent from Denver who came out to a similar church meeting late last month and, over coffee and cookies, was writing letters to her state legislators. “I’m tired of being an armchair person who’s waiting for common sense to take hold.”
Yet resistance to the proposals remains broad and deeply felt.
The most vocal opposition comes from the Rocky Mountain Gun Owners, whose founder, Dudley Brown, chastises the National Rifle Association (NRA) as too moderate because “they’re prone to cutting deals.” Membership in his group has grown by 50 percent since November, Dudley said, and its e-mail list now numbers 60,000 people. The group’s stickers featuring a handgun have become a common sight around the state.
In Denver’s western suburbs last weekend, self-described “gunnies” crowded into a town hall meeting with their state senator. Muscular men in mirrored sunglasses and frayed baseball caps packed the rows of chairs.
One after another, speakers rose to cite riots and terrorism as threats to their safety. To applause, Kelley Sands, a 50-year-old resident of Wheat Ridge, urged that the Second Amendment isn’t just about a right to hunting or sport shooting.
“What it’s about is having military firepower to repel foreign invaders,” he said. “It’s about maintaining a check on government when it gets out of control and tyrannical, like it is right now.”
A national debate
Since the Newtown shooting, state legislators across the country have been introducing gun-control bills similar to federal proposals aimed at requiring universal background checks, prohibiting assault weapons and limiting or banning high-capacity magazines.
As of last month, there were at least 344 new bills across the country to strengthen gun control laws, according to the San Francisco-based Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, which tracks gun legislation nationwide.
“It reflects a real sea change in the public’s opinion about what legislatures across the country ought to be focusing on,” said Arkadi Gerney, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress.
New York has passed stronger gun control laws, and legislation is making its way through statehouses in both California and Maryland. Connecticut Gov. Dan Malloy (D) last week announced proposals for universal and comprehensive background checks for gun buyers, a ban on high-capacity magazines and steps to strengthen Connecticut’s assault weapons ban.
“But there are also bills in states like New Mexico and Minnesota, places that have historically been challenging territory for gun legislation,” Gerney said.