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Gov. Jared Polis delivers the 2023 State of the State address to a joint session of the legislature in the House chamber at the state Capitol on January 17, 2023, in Denver. (Pool photo by RJ Sangosti/The Denver Post, Pool)

Three Democratic state lawmakers are preparing to introduce legislation banning so-called assault weapons in Colorado in response to the mass shootings that have plagued the state. 

But to get the bill into law they’ll need the signature of Gov. Jared Polis, who is already signaling that he’s not keen on the idea.

Polis refused Tuesday to directly answer questions from The Colorado Sun about his views on the proposal. The Democrat said he is focused on strengthening the state’s red flag law, which lets judges order the temporary seizure of guns from people deemed a significant risk to themselves and others, and creating policy around “ghost guns,” which are home-manufactured firearms without serial numbers.

“We’re happy to discuss other ideas from Republicans and Democrats about how we can improve gun safety in Colorado and honor our Second Amendment rights as citizens of the United States of America,” he said.

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Democrats in the legislature, who have historic majorities in the Senate and House, are planning to debate a number of gun control measures this year, including bills increasing the age at which someone can purchase a shotgun or rifle to 21 and enacting a waiting period between when someone purchases a firearm and can access the weapon. 

The 2023 lawmaking term could be the most consequential in Colorado history when it comes to tightening the state’s gun regulations. And the changes could come despite the promise of a backlash from gun advocates. In 2013, Democratic lawmakers were punished after passing a slate of gun laws in the wake of the Aurora shooting. Voters successfully recalled two Democratic state senators, and a Democratic senator resigned to avoid being voted out of office.

It wasn’t until 2019 that Democrats began pursuing and passing gun control legislation again in Colorado. 

With the political ghost of 2013 still looming, albeit not as large, over the Capitol, it’s unclear — beyond Polis — how much support there is among Democratic state lawmakers for a ban on what they call assault weapons. The idea has been swirling around the legislature for years but a bill has never been introduced because there hasn’t been the political will to pass such a measure

Editor’s note: Why do we say the bill bans “so-called” assault weapons? There is no uniform definition for what an assault weapon is. The coming legislation will define that, and we will explain in detail when the bill comes out what types of firearms would or wouldn’t be allowed under the measure.

Senate President Steve Fenberg, D-Boulder, said during The Sun’s legislative preview event last week that he would vote “yes” on a bill banning so-called assault weapons if given the chance. But he also said it isn’t the top gun control priority and that he worries it may “(make) us lose the message and maybe lose the argument around what effective gun violence prevention can be in Colorado.”

“Our job is to pass policy, not just support an idea or not,” he said. “I think there are some complications with exactly how to make that policy effective. Whatever we do in one state is not going to change what somebody does right across the border. Is it at the very top of the list of what I think is the most effective policy we can pass to save lives? Probably not. But with that said, again, I support it.”

There are three Democrats working on the bill: Reps. Andrew Boesenecker of Fort Collins and Elisabeth Epps of Denver and Sen. Rhonda Fields of Aurora. The measure will be introduced in the coming days or weeks.

Boesenecker told The Sun last week that he wasn’t ready to talk about the bill because the sponsors are still working on the policy. He said that a draft version of the legislation posted on Twitter by Rocky Mountain Gun Owners, a hard-line gun rights group, did not reflect changes that have been made to the measure. 

Boesnecker explained that one key challenge in drafting Colorado’s policy compared with what has been done in other states is that the Colorado legislation can’t list specific makes and models of firearms that would be outlawed. The legislature has a policy against naming companies in legislation. Instead, he explained, the Colorado bill must describe firearm features to define the types of weapons that are and are not allowed.

State Rep. Andrew Boesenecker, a Fort Collins Democrat, speaks with Rep. Edie Hooton, a Boulder Democrat, on June 2, 2021. (Thy Vo, Colorado Sun)

Fields confirmed she will be a lead sponsor on the bill and said “we are still making adjustments.”  

Epps walked away from a Sun reporter who tried to talk with her last week, saying she didn’t have time for a conversation then or in the near future. She also didn’t respond to two text messages Wednesday seeking an interview. Epps, however, recently tweeted a video of lawmakers in the Illinois legislature celebrating the passage of an assault weapons ban. “You love to see it,” was her caption.

According to Giffords, a group that advocates for tighter gun regulations, there are fewer than a dozen states with so-called assault weapons bans. They include California, Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey and New York.

Gun rights groups and Republicans are already lining up against the Colorado measure.

“Contact your Colorado lawmakers and urge them to VOTE NO!” Rocky Mountain Gun Owners said in their tweet leaking the draft version of the bill. The post called Boesenecker, Epps and Fields “tyrants.”

The Colorado State Shooting Association said in an email to supporters that they plan to file a lawsuit to invalidate the legislation should it be signed into law. The group said the legislation “only disarms and removes rights from responsible gun owners.”

(Colorado Attorney General Phil Weiser, a Democrat, told The Sun last week that his office is “committed to working with the legislature offering them guidance as to how to create laws that pass constitutional muster.”)

Democrats have large majorities in the House and Senate, and so they don’t need the GOP’s help to pass a ban on so-called assault weapons. Republicans only really have one tool to try to stop the measure: filibustering.

Ultimately, the fate of the legislation lies with Democrats. 

In his State of the State address Tuesday, Polis said he is joining bipartisan calls for “cracking down on ghost guns, which are completely untraceable and increasingly being used to carry out violent crimes.” 9News reported in November that the alleged Club Q shooter used ghost guns in the deadly attack that left five dead and at least 17 wounded.

As for the red flag law, Polis said in his speech that he wants to expand who can ask a judge to order a gun seizure. Right now, it’s limited to law enforcement and family members and others close to the person whose guns would be seizures, like roommates. 

“Why not expand this to include additional petitioners, like district attorneys?” Polis said during his speech. Democrats in the legislature also want to let counselors — in the mental health and education fields — ask for a seizure order.

What the governor didn’t mention in his address was a ban on so-called assault weapons. “I haven’t seen anything like that,” Polis told The Sun when asked about the forthcoming bill, a draft of which was posted online. 

In February 2018, when Polis was a member of Congress, he was a cosponsor of a bill that would have banned so-called assault weapons.

Asked Tuesday whether he thinks Polis will be an ally in his push to ban so-called assault weapons in Colorado, Boesenecker wouldn’t say.

“We haven’t had detailed conversations with him about the policy,” Boesnecker said, “so I’d hate to speculate on where (he’s) at.”

Colorado Sun staff writer Elliott Wenzler contributed to this report.

Jesse Paul

The Colorado Sun — jesse@coloradosun.com 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...