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A combined SWAT team waits outside the middle school entrance at STEM School Highlands Ranch after a shooting that killed one and wounded eight students. (John Leyba, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Democrats in the Colorado legislature are looking at ways to tighten the state’s laws around gun storage and child access, conversations that began before the deadly STEM School Highlands Ranch shooting and have since heightened.

Senate Majority Leader Steve Fenberg, D-Boulder. (Handout)

“The end goal is that someone who shouldn’t have access to a firearm can’t access it,” said Senate Majority Leader Steve Fenberg, who revealed conversations about the potential policies at The Colorado Sun’s legislative forum last week. “Usually that would be a minor, but theoretically would include someone who just isn’t allowed to have a firearm.”

Fenberg, a Boulder Democrat, said the talks — which include lawmakers, advocates and constituents — are preliminary.

“Obviously we have until January at the absolute earliest that we would do anything,” he said. “We are doing our due diligence.”

There are reports that the shooters in the STEM School attack, which left one student dead and eight more wounded, obtained their weapons by breaking into a gun safe belonging to one of their parents. The suspects are 18 and 16 years old, too young to legally purchase handguns, which authorities say were used in the attack.

MORE: This is not Parkland: Douglas County, divided on guns but eager to prevent another school shooting, tries to find its voice

About a dozen U.S. states have laws stipulating how guns are stored and how to prevent children from accessing them. Colorado is not among them, though it does have a law against providing a handgun to a juvenile. The older suspect in the STEM attack, 18-year-old Devon Erickson, is accused of committing that crime, according to online court records.

“Unsecured guns prove very grave risks to the public,” said Allison Anderman, senior counsel at the Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence. “When minors are able to get ahold of unsecured guns, that also presents very serious risks to the public.”

Anderman said weapons that aren’t stored securely can be used by children to kill themselves or accidentally shoot themselves or a playmate.

“They can use them to go to school and commit an act of violence,” she added. “It’s important to make sure that people who own guns prevent unauthorized access to them.”

In Colorado, people must be 18 years old to buy a rifle or shotgun. That age jumps to 21 when it comes to handguns.

Between 2010 and 2018, 247 people between the ages of 10 and 19 in Colorado died by firearm-related suicide, according to statistics gathered by state health officials. In that same span, 134 people in the same age group were killed in gun-related homicides.

Meanwhile, in 2018, Colorado’s gun-related death rate reached its highest per-capita rate since 1986. The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment found that 15.5 people per 100,000 died by firearms last year, a total of 885 people.

The last time the rate was as high was in 1986, when the rate was 15.7 and 508 people died by a firearm.

MORE: Colorado’s 20,669 gun deaths since 1980 explained in five charts

Republicans are already voicing early opposition to talk of legally requiring safe storage of guns.

Senate Minority Leader Chris Holbert, a Parker Republican, cautioned last week against looking for a policy solution to the problem. He says the details of any Colorado gun-storage bill would be difficult to work out and added that “making it harder for people to defend themselves seems like an infective answer, in my mind.”

“Is there some prescribed level of how safe? Or would people who attempt to keep firearms safely stored still be charged with something if they didn’t do it well enough?” Holbert said. He feels lawmakers need more information on what happened at STEM School before looking at how to prevent a similar situation in the future.

Senate Minority Leader Chris Holbert on the opening day of the 2019 legislative session in Colorado. (Kathryn Scott, Special to The Colorado Sun)

“It sounds like a typical knee-jerk reaction that legislators like to do after tragedies,” said Holbert’s deputy, Sen. John Cooke, a Greeley Republican. “I have several guns in my house and they are stored responsibly. It is an individual responsibility. We have laws against murder. It doesn’t stop people from murdering. If you’re not storing your gun responsibly, a law is not going to change that.”

Cooke is Weld County’s former sheriff and says he saw several cases of guns getting into the hands of children.

“Obviously, those are tragedies,” he said. “I believe (the people involved) were charged with negligent homicide or child abuse. There’s already laws out there if something happens. I don’t think we need to increase laws and penalties that we already can use.”

It’s true that authorities sometimes do find ways to charge adults who leave guns unsecured when they are later used in an accidental, child-related shooting. A woman in Colorado Springs was accused of child abuse resulting in death last year after her 2-year-old son accidentally killed himself with a handgun that she allegedly left out.

In other accidental shooting cases involving a child, however, charges are not sought.  For instance, a grand jury opted not to indict a Steamboat Springs police officer whose 3-year-old son fatally shot himself in 2016 with a gun he apparently found in a closet.

On Friday, top Republicans and Democrats in the legislature announced a bipartisan, interim committee on school safety that will look at ways to prevent another tragedy like the STEM School shooting. The panel could recommend legislation for the 2020 lawmaking term.

Fenberg said Colorado will look toward other states as policymakers discuss potential gun-storage laws.

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There are 14 states that have laws carrying criminal liability for people who negligently store firearms that wind up in kids’ hands when they should have known that a child was likely to be able to access the firearm, according to the Giffords Law Center. The center is named after former U.S. Rep. Gabby Giffords, an Arizona Democrat who was gravely wounded in a 2011 assassination attempt.

The laws can vary widely in terms of age, whether the gun is loaded and whether the child actually accesses the weapon.

Eleven states also have some kind of law surrounding locking devices and guns. Massachusetts has the toughest policy, requiring that all firearms be stored with a lock in place. New York City, Albany, New York, and Sunnyvale, California, have similar city-specific ordinances. San Francisco does, too, though it’s limited to handguns.

California, Connecticut and New York state mandate that guns in storage have a locking device if the owner lives with someone who is prohibited to have firearms. The rest of the states with locking device laws have policies requiring that guns being sold or transferred are secured with a safety device that prevents it from being fired.

Volunteers concerned about gun violence in Colorado and other states have turned to gun-safety education programs while they await change in law.

Misty Glover, an Aurora mother of two boys, gives a gun-safety presentation developed by Moms Demand Action about once a week. She and other volunteers from the nationwide gun-violence prevention group spread the word at parent-teacher organizations, neighborhood parties and church groups across Colorado.

Glover wants conversations about gun safety to come as naturally as talking about whether a kid is allergic to dogs or peanut butter. “People say don’t talk about politics and religion,” Glover said. “Guns are even more taboo than that.”

When her 5-year-old twins were invited to a recent birthday party, Glover sent a friendly — and maybe a bit awkward — text to the mom who was hosting:

Moms Demand Action, a national group founded after the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut, meets in Highlands Ranch Monday night, a week after one student was killed and eight were injured at STEM School Highlands Ranch. (John Leyba, Special to The Colorado Sun)

“My boys are really excited about coming over. Just wanted to ask, do you have any guns in your home and can you tell me how they are secured?”

She asks that question whenever her kids play at a house they’ve never visited before, and she teaches other parents how to ask it, too. Glover’s 15-minute presentation, developed in 2015, also includes recommendations on how to securely store guns in homes and vehicles.

“It’s completely nonpolitical — it’s educational,” she said. “We put the onus on adults. There are other programs out there that teach children not to touch a gun.”

The mom hosting the birthday party didn’t seem offended by the question, Glover recalled. She responded that her husband is a state trooper, so yes, there are guns in their home, and they are properly secured.

Hiding a gun in an upper cabinet is not secure, Glover said. Neither is sliding it under the seat in the car or tossing it in the glove box. Secure means unloaded and locked up in a safe or portable lock box, separate from ammunition, she said. And when a family member is going through a mental health crisis, she recommends adults temporarily remove guns from their home.  

About 40 percent of child suicides in the United States involve a gun, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And 78 percent of shooters under age 18 who were involved in school shootings got their guns from their home or the home of relatives or friends, according to Everytown for Gun Safety’s 2013-18 “gunfire on school grounds” database. “The shooters are getting these guns from their homes,” Glover said.

While the gun safety program, called Be Smart, is nonpolitical, Moms Demand Action is supportive of gun-reform measures aimed at decreasing the chances kids get their hands on guns. The group points toward a proposal expected to reach the governor’s desk in Connecticut this spring, requiring that all firearms — loaded or not — are securely stored in homes with children under age 18.

The law is named for Ethan Song, who accidentally shot himself in the head in January 2018 after finding a pistol in a closet at a neighbor’s house.

Jennifer Brown

Jen is a co-founder and reporter at The Sun, where she writes about mental health, child welfare and social justice issues. Her first journalism job was at The Hungry Horse News in her home state of...

Jesse Paul

The Colorado Sun — Desk: 720-432-2229 Jesse Paul is a political reporter and editor at The Colorado Sun, covering the state legislature, Congress and local politics. He is...