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Bill to bar those with violent misdemeanors from buying guns clears first committee hurdle

Marianne Goodland - Colorado Politics  | Published on 6/1/2021

The first of three new gun safety bills, in part a response to the March 22 shooting at the south Boulder King Soopers, was approved on a party-line 7-4 vote by the House Judiciary Committee.

But what a difference there was between the angry crowds that filled the Capitol over gun laws in 2013 compared to the hearing Wednesday evening.

House Bill 1298 would change state law on background checks for firearms transfers as well as close what’s known as the Charleston loophole. That refers to the 2015 shooting at the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina, which resulted in the murders of nine African American parishioners. The shooter obtained a firearm without a background check, because under South Carolina law — the same as Colorado's — if a background check doesn’t come back within three days the dealer has to transfer the firearm to the buyer without it.

Bill sponsor Rep. Judy Amabile, a Boulder Democrat whose district includes the King Soopers, read off the names of the massacre victims. All were killed on March 22, she said, “but their fate was sealed six days before, when the shooter passed a background check and purchased a gun. The time to stop this person wasn’t at the King Soopers, it was before he bought the gun.” 

Under HB 1298, those with convictions for violent misdemeanors would not be able to buy a gun for five years after the conviction. The suspect in the Boulder King Soopers had been convicted of third-degree assault, a misdemeanor, three years before he purchased the firearm, according to witness testimony.

“This bill won’t stop every crime; no bill will do that,” Amabile said. But it has enormous potential to make a real difference, she added.

Dr. Garen Wintemute, an emergency room physician at UC Davis Medical Center and director of the state-funded firearm violence research center, presented data on risk factors for criminal activity tied to firearms purchases. He said that those with violent misdemeanors are nine times more likely to commit more serious crimes.

He also pointed out that California enacted the portion of HB 1298 on barring gun sales for those with convictions of violent misdemeanors, and said it resulted in a 25% reduction in the risk of arrest or crimes involving firearms.

Joel Loomis is a student at CU-Boulder and worked as a closing cashier at the south Boulder King Soopers. On March 21, he visited the store, talking to a friend, coworker and boss, Rikki Olds. She had time only for hello. The next time he saw her, it was a video of her body on the floor of the store.

“Apparently there are no safe places from the horror of gun violence,” Loomis told the committee. “I lost more than three coworkers and friends on March 22, I lost my sense of safety. I’m afraid and I don’t want to be.”

Boulder Mayor Sam Weaver said the losses wounded his community.

“I could not have imagined attending so many funerals,” he said.

Background checks work, said Maisha Fields, daughter of state Sen. Rhonda Fields of Aurora and sister to Javad Marshall-Fields, who along with his fiancée was murdered in 2005 to prevent him from testifying in a murder trial.

Since the background check system was established, more than 14,000 people who should not have access to guns have been denied that access, she said. "I'm a member of a club no mother, father, sister or brother should join." 

Representatives of the League of Women Voters, Everytown for Gun Safety, Giffords, Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense and Colorado Ceasefire were out in force Wednesday in support of the legislation.

Boulderite Mary Liz Calloway of Moms Demand Action joined when the pastor of her church challenged parishioners to get involved after the 2015 shooting in Charleston.

"Why do racially motivated killings continue to happen?" she said the pastor asked. "Because people like us aren't getting involved to stop it."

Calloway said that was a message she couldn't ignore and she began looking at the Charleston loophole. And fatal flaws in background checks have affected her, too; her daughter's boyfriend was in the King Soopers during the shooting. Inadequate criteria for prohibiting firearm transfers failed the Boulder shooter as well as his victims, she said.

Mary Parker of Jefferson County holds a concealed carry permit and owns firearms. It's important to periodically review and evaluate existing laws to see if they are effective, she told the committee.

"We know there is strong support for background checks," but the question is whether the state's laws are as effective as they could be, and the answer to that is "no," she said.

"As a gun owner I understand when someone who feels vulnerable might want to get a gun for protection. If my background check was delayed and I felt threatened, I would stay with a friend or relative" until the background check came in, she said. "But if I was so paranoid that I couldn't trust my relative, neighbor or government, then maybe I shouldn't be getting a gun at all."

But those opposed to the bill said no law will stop gun violence. Michael Stapleton said the legislature was committing “malpractice." There is no law and no legislation that can be done to stop this, he told the committee.

Nephi Cole of the National Shooting Sports Association, a firearms trade association, said his organization has a long history of supporting responsible gun ownership, and its members are the recognized experts on background check issues. They have no tolerance for firearms being in the possession of those who are legally prohibited from ownership, Cole said.

The National Instant Criminal Background Check System processes 90% of background checks within minutes, but it has also blocked 1.9 million people since 1998 from purchasing firearms.

"I believe the system works when the data is there and used correctly," he said. "We do have concerns about adequate staffing and funding to ensure that your system is accurate," he said, it can't capture the wrong people.

"We agree the best predictor of violence is previous violence," and the majority of denials are for that reason. But the bill brings in non-violent misdemeanors, including negligent, rather than violent, behaviors. These could result in someone losing their constitutional right, Cole said.

Taylor Rhodes, the executive director of Rocky Mountain Gun Owners, whose members and supporters played large roles in fighting against the background check law passed in 2013, also testified. He had a warning for lawmakers: pass this bill and the RMGO super PAC will work next year to hold them accountable.

This bill “shows how out of touch this body is with the gun community,” Rhodes told the committee.

He pointed to a 2018 Department of Justice report on background checks. That report, Rhodes said, showed 25.6 million firearms background checks in 2017. Of those, 112,000 were denied; the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms followed up on about 12,000. Only 12 were prosecuted by district attorneys, which he said proves that background checks are ineffective.

Dan Neilson of Pueblo County said he does not diminish the carnage.

“We don’t talk about hammers or knives. My Second Amendment right is being infringed upon, and I don’t think this legislature will ever get a handle on violence. Step by step, inch by inch, you’re trying to suffocate something you will never get a handle on,” he said.

Neilson suggested the legislature address mental health, and that people should teach their children that firearms are not dangerous if handled right.

Rally for Our Rights' Lesley Hollywood said they are heartbroken by repeated senseless tragedies, "but the more we see ineffective gun control being passed, the more we know" those tragedies will continue. She claimed the Boulder shooter was already prohibited from purchasing a gun due to his conviction on third-degree assault. Violent crime has skyrocketed since 2013, she said. She also claimed minorities will be disproportionately affected by the law, should the bill pass.

Rep. Terri Carver, R-Colorado Springs, said that her problems with HB 1298 are that crimes that do not include an act of violence — such as cruelty to animals or crimes against an at-risk person — could be the basis for denying a gun purchase. She also had concerns about the retroactive nature tied to the convictions, which would bar someone from buying a gun if they had a misdemeanor within the past five years. 

The majority of those testifying Wednesday supported HB 1298, and the lack of strong opposition showed the change in Colorado's political climate around guns since 2014, particularly for the group that has made fighting Democratic efforts on gun control their signature issue.

Rocky Mountain Gun Owners parlayed those 2013 laws into both money and recall efforts, successfully ousting two state senators, including Senate President John Morse, a Colorado Springs Democrat. A third, Sen. Evie Hudak of Arvada, resigned rather than face a recall. Between the 2012 and 2014 elections, RMGO raised $258,930, according to TRACER, the Secretary of State's campaign finance database. Those recalls also helped flip control of the state Senate to Republicans, who held on to the majority for the next four years.

But 2018 was a game-changer, and not just for Senate control. RMGO aggressively targeted Rep. Cole Wist, a Centennial Republican, for his support of the first iteration of the "red flag" — also known as the extreme risk protective order — bill. He lost the 2018 election to Rep. Tom Sullivan, a Democrat who ran on support for the red flag proposal that became law just a few months later. RMGO targeted Sullivan for a recall that failed in its first step. RMGO's efforts in the legal system have fared no better; they challenged two of the 2013 laws in court, failing to overturn either. An effort to overturn the red flag law failed, too.

And gun control isn't the money-maker now that it was for RMGO during the 2013 and 2014 sessions; in contrast to the funds raised at that time, RMGO has taken in a total of $257,188 for the six years between 2014 and 2020.

Instead, funds have poured in from gun control groups, such as Everytown for Gun Safety, which raised nearly $2 million into Democratic-leaning campaign committees and against recall efforts between 2014 and 2020. 

HB 1298 now heads to the full House for debate. The second of the three gun-related bills, setting up a state Office of Gun Violence Prevention within the Department of Public Health and Environment, is scheduled for its first hearing on Friday.

In 2013, opponents to the gun control bills spent hours circling the Capitol, honking horns which could be heard in the House and Senate chambers. On Wednesday, the sound of car horns near the Capitol showed not opposition to gun bills, but to celebrate Cinco de Mayo.