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Senate Democrats advance legislation expanding firearm background checks

Marianne Goodland - Colorado Politics | Published on 6/11/2021

After a busy morning putting the final stamp on nearly three dozen bills, the Senate turned their attention to a bill that promises to expand the reasons for which someone can be denied the sale of a firearm. 

House Bill 1298 is one of three late-session gun safety bills introduced in the wake of the March 22 shooting at the south Boulder King Soopers, although only HB 1298 could have potentially made a difference in that shooting that left 10 people, including a Boulder police officer, dead.

HB 1298 would close the "Charleston loophole," a reference to the 2015 shooting at the Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, S.C., that resulted in the murders of nine Black parishioners. The shooter obtained a firearm without a background check, because under South Carolina law — which is Colorado's, too — if a background check doesn’t come back within three days, the dealer can transfer the firearm to the buyer without it.

Secondly, 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.

The bill won a party-line 3-2 vote of approval from the Senate State, Veterans and Military Affairs Committee on Wednesday and was debated by the full Senate Thursday.

"It is incredibly important for us to address the epidemic of gun violence we have seen in Colorado," said bill sponsor Sen. Julie Gonzales, D-Denver. Thoughts and prayers are important but it's policy that communities are begging for, she added. States that have expanded background checks have seen impressive results, such as 53% fewer law enforcement officers killed in the line of duty and 47% fewer women shot by their domestic partners. 

Republicans, however, weren't buying it. Sen. John Cooke, R-Greeley, was the first to the Senate podium, saying, "Here we go again: we're going to do something whether it means anything or not." He called it a "feel good" bill that will do nothing to protect Coloradans.

Cooke tied the bill to one adopted only minutes before in the Senate, the pre-trial reform bill SB 273, which would bar law enforcement from arresting people for low-level offenses. One of those offenses, Cooke pointed out, is third-degree misdemeanor assault, the same charge the Boulder shooter was convicted of. That's an offense that would prevent someone from buying a gun, Cooke pointed out. "That's not a low-level crime, that's a major crime," Cooke insisted. 

Criminals don't apply for background checks, Cooke said later. In one study, he said, 67% of prison inmates with guns got them by stealing them or buying them on the black market. Very few bought them from gun stores that would have required a background check, he said. 

"Next time we have a tragedy, we'll be back with more gun control to use against our citizens," he said.

Senate Minority Leader Chris Holbert, R-Douglas County, also spoke against the bill. Those who live in Grand Junction might drive to Utah, or those in Fort Collins might drive to Cheyenne to buy a gun to avoid the law. "I don't question the sincerity of the sponsors, but I see 1298 as yet another example of 'a tragic event has happened'" and "never let a crisis go to waste."

"We're not talking about an overbroad policy," Gonzales countered. "This isn't all misdemeanors and it's not a permanent prohibition." Gonzales said she believes in the power of rehabilitation. But if someone is convicted of a crime that includes sexual assault, child abuse, crimes against an at-risk person or possession of an illegal weapon, those are instances in which someone shouldn't be able to buy a new gun, she said. 

The bill won a preliminary voice vote approval fro
m the Senate and heads to a final vote on Friday. If it passes, — and that's all but assured — it heads back to the House for consideration of Senate amendments.