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In this Nov. 27, 2015 file photo, emergency personnel transport an officer to an ambulance after reports of a shooting at the Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado Springs. It was an event that led to calls for stricter gun control. (Daniel Owen/The Gazette via AP, File)

Colorado’s Republican U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner has effectively been a top target for Giffords, a national group pushing for more gun-control legislation and candidates willing to champion those measures, since its inception four years ago, said Joanna Belanger, the organization’s political director.

In fact, Belanger says, Giffords has been engaged in a “years-long effort to make sure that Gardner doesn’t serve another term.” 

And the deep-pocketed group named after former U.S. Rep. Gabby Giffords, an Arizona Democrat who was critically wounded in a 2011 shooting, has invested heavily in Colorado to accomplish that very goal. 

Giffords PAC has dropped more than $1.3 million so far this election cycle in opposition to Gardner, running TV and digital ads and hosting rallies in Colorado on behalf of the Democratic candidate in the race, former Gov. John Hickenlooper. That’s in addition to the $1 million spent in the state by another gun-control advocacy group, Everytown for Gun Safety, which is funded by former New York Mayor Mike Bloomberg.

It’s a dramatic turn from 2014, the year Gardner was first elected to his seat with the help of millions from the National Rifle Association. Gun-control groups really weren’t a financial force back then, making the race a lopsided example of the firearm industry’s power. 

Republican U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner at the Denver7 studio in Denver on Friday, October 9, 2020. (Pool photo by Hyoung Chang/The Denver Post)

Now, the tables have turned, reflecting the growing political power of gun-control groups Colorado, who feel voters sympathize with their message, even in a year when a global pandemic and a fierce presidential race are more top of mind. The NRA, meanwhile, is spending a fraction of what it did six years ago.

“There is a lot more energy and a lot more money on the gun-control side right now,” said Seth Masket, a political science professor at the University of Denver, where he leads the Center on American Politics. “They’re much more active now than they used to be. Democrats, particularly in Colorado, were just far more terrified of being seen as anti-gun.”

Masket said “increasingly those who advocate for unfettered access to firearms have become seen as relatively extreme,” which has meant, conversely, that advocating for increasing regulations around gun ownership has been a safer position for Colorado Democrats to be in.

Take U.S. Rep. Jason Crow, an Aurora Democrat, as an example. He swept Republican incumbent Mike Coffman out of office in 2018 by running on a gun-control platform.

MORE: How Donald Trump, guns and cash spelled an end to Mike Coffman’s decade in Congress

But while Gardner may perfectly fit the profile of the type of politician gun-control groups want out of office — a Republican who has taken millions from the gun lobby and opposes just about any measure tightening restrictions around firearms — Hickenlooper may not be their perfect replacement. 

Two days after the July 20, 2012, Aurora theater shooting, Hickenlooper wondered aloud on national TV whether gun-control could have stopped the tragedy. Then he upset activists for couching his support of legislation he signed into law imposing magazine-size limits. And when he jumped from the presidential race to the U.S. Senate contest last year, he deprioritized some of his big plans for increasing firearms regulations. 

State Rep. Tom Sullivan, a Centennial Democrat and fierce gun-control advocate whose son, Alex, was murdered in the theater shooting, said he doesn’t hold anything against Hickenlooper. Sullivan has endorsed the former governor’s Senate campaign and feels confident that, if nothing else, he would be far more aggressive in pushing for change than Gardner. 

“He’s clear that he’s a friend to us,” Sullivan said, adding that you still have to keep explaining to your friends why it’s important that they support your causes.

Cory Gardner’s record on guns

Colorado’s Republican senator has been clear: “I don’t support gun control,” he said at an August 2019 event in Aspen.

His record of votes and statements backs that up

Gardner was criticized in 2018 for not supporting a bipartisan effort to shore up the National Instant Criminal Background Check System in the wake of a shooting at a Texas church that year that left 26 people dead. At the time, he said he was concerned about “due process issues” in the bill. 

Gardner has talked about constitutional issues as a reason for not supporting other legislation. , He expressed similar trepidation when Colorado lawmakers were weighing the passage of a so-called red flag bill in recent years, which allows a judge to temporarily order the seizure of someone’s firearms if they are a risk to themselves or others.

Critics often attack Gardner for having benefited from about $4 million in NRA spending in Colorado’s 2014 Senate race, when he beat incumbent Democratic U.S. Sen. Mark Udall. There have also been allegations that the NRA and Gardner’s campaign illegally coordinated that year.

This election cycle, with the NRA in shambles, Gardner has benefited from only about $250,000 in support from the group. 

U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner, R-Colorado, at an event in Aurora on July 12, 2019. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)

The NRA has endorsed Gardner and gives him an “A” grade. Hickenlooper, by comparison, received an “F” from the group.

Gardner’s reelection campaign didn’t respond to questions about whether he supports federal legislation requiring a background check for every gun sale, as Colorado law requires.

Currently, federal law only requires a background check for guns sold through licensed firearm dealers, leaving loopholes for gun sales made privately or at trade shows. Polling from the Pew Research Center shows Americans overwhelmingly support closing the loopholes.

In response to a question about whether Gardner thinks people who are barred from taking a commercial flight — and are on the so-called no-fly list — should also be banned from purchasing a firearm, his spokesman pointed to a vote the senator cast in 2016. He voted in favor of authorizing the attorney general to delay transfer of firearms to a suspected terrorist for up to three days while seeking a court order to prevent the transfer. 

Gardner’s reelection campaign didn’t provide comment, however, on the senator’s broader views on preventing gun violence. Instead, it pointed to Gardner’s work on policies to bolster mental health care for kids, prevent child suicide and boost school security funding.

John Hickenlooper’s record on guns

One of the most contentious moments of Hickenlooper’s tenure as governor of Colorado came in 2013 when he signed a series of gun-control measures into law in the wake of the Aurora theater shooting and the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut.

The legislation required a background check for every gun purchase in Colorado and put the onus on buyers to pay for them and limited firearm magazines to 15 rounds. 

The magazine limit was the most contentious, drawing criticism from law enforcement and gun-rights activists who said it was unenforceable. A firestorm erupted in 2014 when a video surfaced of Hickenlooper telling county sheriffs that he didn’t think the legislation would pass and that he signed it because one of his staffers committed the governor’s office to supporting the measure. 

“Once you give your word, or someone who works for you gives your word for you — someone who has the responsibility and the ability to do that — generally you try not to go back on that,” Hickenlooper said in the recording.

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Eileen McCarron, who leads the gun-control advocacy group Ceasefire Colorado, told The Colorado Sun last year that Hickenlooper’s comments back then made her “sick.” (Ceasefire Colorado has endorsed Hickenlooper’s Senate campaign.)

Belanger, from Giffords, says she’s aware of Hickenlooper’s gun-control record, “but at the end of the day, he was there and he was governor” when the firearms laws were passed and signed into law in Colorado in 2013.

“Our job is to make sure we have gun-safety champions in the Senate and that we can pass common-sense bills like background checks,” she said. “We’re not going to do that with Gardner. We’re going to do that with John Hickenlooper.”

She said she has no doubt that Hickenlooper will “vote for the right things” in the Senate if he’s elected. Giffords, the former congresswoman, has traveled to Colorado to speak on Hickenlooper’s behalf and endorsed him during the Democratic primary.

Hickenlooper has also won support from state Sen. Rhonda Fields, an Aurora Democrat whose son, Javad Marshall-Fields and his fiancée, Vivian Wolfe, were gunned down in 2005. She has said he was pivotal in getting the 2013 legislation passed.

“Hickenlooper has been a key ally for the gun-violence prevention movement,” Shannon Watts, who founded the group Moms Demand Action, said during a virtual event Saturday. “We know with him in the Senate we are step closer to pass crucial, life-saving legislation at the federal level.”

On his Senate campaign website, Hickenlooper says he would push for many of the policies passed in Colorado on the national stage. That includes universal background checks, red flag laws and magazine limits. He also wants to reinstate the congressional assault weapons ban, which expired in 2004. Hickenlooper also wants to expand the number of days a gun seller has to run a background check before they have to hand over a firearm to a customer to 10 days from three.

“Things like universal background checks — they’re so overdue,” Hickenlooper said at a virtual event over the weekend. “We’ve lost too many friends and neighbors — too many children — to gun violence here in Colorado. And the loss of life is devastating.” 

Former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper at a “car rally” at Denver’s East High School on Thursday, Oct. 8, 2020. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)

But some of the even more progressive and strict policies Hickenlooper pushed for when he was on the presidential campaign trail are not a part of his Senate campaign platform. 

For instance, Hickenlooper’s presidential plan, released in May 2019, called for a national gun licensing program, including a requirement that new gun owners complete gun safety and storage training. He also wanted to raise the age to purchase guns to 21 and expressed interest in creating a waiting period between when someone buys their guns and can access them, sometimes called a “cool-off period.”

Asked about those proposals last year when he jumped to the Senate race, Hickenlooper said they were “more of a point of discussion.”  

As for the licensing idea, in particular? “I was not optimistic that on a national level that was something that we could (implement),” he said. “I do think that that’s something that should be discussed.”

A spokesman said it’s not that Hickenlooper no longer supports the ideas, they just aren’t priorities. Hickenlooper’s Senate campaign says the Democrat is committed to pushing for more gun control if elected and using his work in Colorado as a framework to start from.

“As United States senator, John will bring the same drive he had here in Colorado to Washington and make Colorado’s gun safety laws a national model,” Ammar Moussa, Hickenlooper’s spokesman, said in a written statement.

Can gun-control move voters this cycle?

It remains unclear whether gun violence and gun control are top of mind for voters this year given the broad uncertainty in Colorado and the U.S.

“There’s so much going on,” said Kyle Saunders, a political science professor at Colorado State University.

A poll of 2,275 Colorado adults conducted in August revealed that just 4% feel that public safety/crime/drugs are the most important issues facing Colorado right now. Many more said they were worried about the coronavirus crisis, politics, wildfires, climate change, jobs, the economy and homelessness. 

Since that poll was completed, a U.S. Supreme Court seat has also opened up and President Donald Trump has tested positive for coronavirus.

In the first two Senate race debates, guns were not a topic of discussion. 

“There are these national issues that are speaking so loud right now,” said Masket, the University of Denver professor. “It’s hard for other issues to make themselves known.”

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Sullivan is fearful, too, that gun violence has fallen out of the public eye, even as it continues to be a problem in Colorado and across the nation. 

Television ads attacking Gardner over his positions on gun control appear to nod to the difficulty in breaking through on gun violence in the current atmosphere. The spots have not focused solely on guns. Instead, Giffords has also attacked Gardner for voting in lockstep with Trump. Everytown’s ad tied Gardner to Trump and the president’s coronavirus response on top of messaging around firearms. 

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Everytown is confident, however, that its gun-control message won’t be lost and that voters will understand the comparison between the death toll from the pandemic with the death toll from gun violence. 

“Even as thousands of people die from not one but two public health crises – gun violence and coronavirus – Cory Gardner continues to side with Trump and the gun lobby at the expense of the health and safety of Colorado families,” Jessica Price, a volunteer with the Colorado chapter of Moms Demand Action, said in a written statement.

Giffords’ team, too, feels that gun violence remains a focus among voters.

“What we see in research is it’s still very much on the mind of voters,” Belanger said. But, she concedes, “it’s not the hot topic that it was in 2018.”

Regardless, Belanger said her group plans to be active in Colorado long after the 2020 election cycle. With the state’s high level of gun ownership and painful history of mass shootings, she doesn’t think firearm control is an issue that is going away. 

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....