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East view of Colorado State Capitol Building. Saturday July 21, 2018. (Jeremy Martinez, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Democrats will enter the 2019 legislative session in complete control at the state Capitol. But despite the issue of tightening gun controls taking top billing in the midterm campaign, party leaders are so far signaling that their agenda will focus on just one measure: the so-called red flag bill.

That measure, which would allow Colorado judges to temporarily seize firearms from people deemed an imminent risk, is certain to return next year. The bill had bipartisan support during the 2018 legislative session but was killed in committee by Senate Republicans.

Leading Democratic lawmakers say they aren’t prioritizing other laws, like a bump-stock or assault-style weapons ban, or increased regulation around concealed-carry permits.

“I think that’s mostly going to be it,” said state Sen. Stephen Fenberg, a Boulder Democrat and the incoming Senate majority leader. “That’s not to say there won’t be other bills, but in terms of what’s a priority for everyone, it’s going to be that bill.”

Fenberg added: “It’s early and people are still figuring out what their priorities are. I don’t think there is really anything more to read into it.”

The likely approach is less aggressive than 2013, the year after the Aurora theater shooting, when Democrats expanded background checks and limited ammunition magazines to 15 rounds. The blowback was immense. Two state senators were recalled, another resigned and the issue may have contributed to the party’s loss of power in the 2014 election.

Republican lawmakers, hoping to rebound in 2020, already plan to paint Democrats as overreaching. It would shore up the GOP’s messaging if Democrats pass legislation to tighten gun regulations, especially if it’s a bill beyond red flag. 

“We don’t have the votes to stop them. The statesman in me hopes they did learn lessons in 2013 and they’ll be more reserved,” said incoming Senate Minority Leader Chris Holbert, a Douglas County Republican. “The political side of me, would I take the opportunity if it was given to me? Sure.”

Gun-control advocates are encouraging Democrats to shepherd new laws through the legislature. Groups pushing for tighter firearm regulations poured big sums of money into races on behalf of the party’s candidates and take credit for their widespread victories Nov. 6.

“Now’s the time,” said Ken Toltz, who founded Safe Campus Colorado and would like concealed carrying of firearms banned from the state’s colleges and universities. “You work so hard to gain the majority, you can’t squander the opportunity.”

The Colorado Coalition Against Gun Violence, an organization of gun-control supporters, is working to draw up measures they’d like to see offered next session and have been in talks with legislative leaders about their ideas. Eileen McCarron, a leader in the coalition, said details still are being worked out.

“I don’t know what’s going to happen,” said McCarron, who also works with Colorado Ceasefire. “We’ll have to see. There’s lots of conversations going on.”

The Colorado House of Representatives, pictured in September. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)

Red flag bill will likely still be testy

Even the red flag bill will likely prove troublesome in the legislature next year. When introduced in the final days of the 2018 session, it stoked controversy before a committee in the Republican-led Senate rejected the law.

The measure, House Bill 1436, sailed through the Democrat-controlled House, with only two Republicans voting “aye,” before stalling.

The legislation was brought by Alec Garnett, a Denver Democrat, and Cole Wist, a moderate Republican from Centennial. (The measure was also supported by Republicans George Brauchler, the 18th Judicial District attorney who prosecuted the Aurora theater shooter; Arapahoe County Sheriff Dave Walcher; and Douglas County Sheriff Tony Spurlock, who lost a deputy in a line-of-duty shooting a few months before.)

Wist, the assistant House minority leader, nearly lost his leadership job after attaching his name to the legislation, and in his re-election bid faced blowback from the far-right Rocky Mountain Gun Owners Association — a sign that Republicans are still under pressure to steer clear from firearm regulations. Wist ultimately lost his re-election bid to Democrat Tom Sullivan, whose son, Alex, was killed in the Aurora theater shooting.

State Rep. Alec Garnett, D-Denver. (Handout)

But Garnett, who is the incoming House majority leader, still plans to be central in pushing the legislation in the coming session.

“This is an issue that remains to be incredibly popular with Coloradans across the state because of how common sense it is,” Garnett said.

Sullivan, who has been a persistent advocate at the Capitol for tighter gun controls, said the red flag bill is top priority for him. In fact, it was a big part of his campaign.

“I have talked with House leadership about it,” he said. “I talked to them during our campaign. We talked about it when we were launching canvassers. We talked about it when we were knocking on doors.”

Sullivan said he hasn’t heard of other gun-control legislation being discussed. He also expressed trepidation around laws banning certain kinds of firearms or devices, such as assault weapons or bump stocks.

“Banning things — that doesn’t work,” he said in an interview earlier this month. “You say, ‘we’re going to ban this,’ (and) it puts up a group of people who are going to rise up against you. We don’t want that.”

MORE: “It revealed to me this is what I can do”: Tom Sullivan’s son was killed in the Aurora theater shooting — and now he’ll be a state representative

Once again, the Senate may prove an obstacle for the red flag bill. Senate President-elect Leroy Garcia, a Pueblo Democrat, declined to say if he would support such a measure this year.

In a written statement, he said he “won’t speculate on anything I haven’t seen.” Garcia has voted with Republicans to repeal the 2013 law limiting magazine capacity.

Fenberg, however, said that if the bill looks the way it did last year, “it has a really good shot at getting to the governor’s desk.”

A proposed ban on bump stocks was rejected last session by the same three Republicans on the Senate committee that turned down the red flag bill.

That measure, which came in response to the mass shooting at a country music festival in Las Vegas and targeted devices that can increase a semi-automatic rifle’s rate of fire to near that of an automatic rifle, had only one sponsor: outgoing Sen. Michael Merrifield, a Colorado Springs Democrat, who is retiring.

Talk of reviving the bump stock ban in 2019 hasn’t been at the forefront, though it is supported by Gov.-elect Jared Polis.

Polis also favors mandating increased security measures at gun stores and has vowed to direct state funds toward the Colorado Department Health and Environment to research the link between public health and gun violence. Federal researchers are barred from examining the public health implications of gun violence.

MORE: Read more politics and government coverage from The Colorado Sun.

“My advice is be courageous”

Looking back to the 2013 gun control measures, Angela Giron, a Pueblo Democrat, has no regrets, even though she was one of the two lawmakers recalled in 2013.

“I think what we did was all good,” she said. “All the legislation we passed is still on the books.”

What she would tell Democrats once again in power: “My advice is be courageous and do what you think is right.”

Former state Senate President John Morse, a Colorado Springs Democrat who was recalled alongside Giron, agrees with the sentiment that the bill’s passage was the right thing to do. He points to all of the people who were barred from purchasing guns because of expanded background checks.

But Morse says there are other policies Democrats will need to focus on next year, just as they did when he was a lawmaker. “The legislature is not all about guns. It never was all about guns,” he said.

Fenberg said what happened to Giron and Morse is still on the minds of Democrats, though he thinks less so than what’s perceived.

“I mean, honestly, I think it’s talked about much less in the caucus than it is in the press,” he said. But he acknowledged the history of the issue “it’s part of our DNA. It is something that people have some (anxiety) around, but people also want to make sure they are learning the right things from that.”

McCarron, with Ceasefire Colorado, thinks sweeping victories by Democrats earlier this month show there is public support to move forward with tightening gun regulations.

“The people who won this legislative cycle round did not win by close margins,” she said. “They won by large margins, and in many of these cases, we had endorsed the candidates. I don’t think there was an aversion to the voters of the issue.”

She added: “I don’t think it’s an overreach, the things we are talking about.”

Updated 9:45 a.m. on Nov. 29, 2018: This story has been corrected to clarify why state Sen. Michael Merrifield, D-Colorado Springs, is leaving the legislature. He is retiring.

Jesse Paul is a Denver-based political reporter and editor at The Colorado Sun, covering the state legislature, Congress and local politics. He is the author of The Unaffiliated newsletter and also occasionally fills in on breaking news coverage....