If you missed the story — and you might have because it happened in the dead of night, just before 1 a.m. on Thursday — a bill to ban assault-style weapons died an ignoble death in a state House committee after more than 12 hours of debate.
Three Democrats joined four Republicans to kill the bill on a 7-6 Judiciary Committee vote.
It was dramatic, we were told, but it couldn’t have come as any kind of surprise except to those who had missed all the many clues that the bill was never going anywhere.
I know. It would have been fair to think that with a Democratic governor and with overwhelming Democratic majorities in both chambers of the legislature and with the Club Q mass shooting in recent memory, this should have been the time, if ever there were one, to get a ban passed into law.
We all know that it’s no easy matter defining what qualifies as an assault weapon. But the sponsors did a decent job in laying out a general definition without naming any particular brand. It was a definition that might pass muster in a courtroom, although maybe not if the courtroom were in Texas.
Want early access to
Subscribe to get an
exclusive first look at
his columns twice a week.
But that wasn’t enough.
It’s semi-obvious why the bill didn’t go through. Gov. Jared Polis opposed it, and some Democrats who might have voted for the bill didn’t want to take on the governor.
Two questions: Would the bill have passed with Polis’ support? And is it possible that in the next session, Polis and the Democrats might pass a similar bill?
These answers don’t come easily because few Democrats in the legislature wanted to go on the record about it. And Polis, who never supported the bill, also never actually said he would veto it. My guess is that with Polis’ support, a ban would have become law. And here’s another guess: If a ban had passed this session, Polis wouldn’t have used his veto power. But it’s just a guess because Polis always knew it was never going to come to a test.
So, why didn’t Polis support the ban? When the governor was a congressman, he supported a national ban on assault-style rifles, just as Joe Biden does today. But Polis says now that without a national ban, a state ban would have little impact. That might be true. With just a few hours on the road, you can get to one of any neighboring states where you could easily buy an assault-style weapon.
Even Rep. Tom Sullivan, whose son, Alex, died in the Aurora theater shooting and who has been at the forefront of passing gun legislation in Colorado, agreed that a one-state assault-rifle ban wasn’t the best use of the legislature’s gun-safety capital.
It’s true that this legislative session has been rife with gun bills, nearly all of which have passed or will pass. It matters. Some of the bills might have a real impact on the scourge of gun violence.
In a news conference before the session began, Democrats named four gun-related bills that would be proposed — and none of those bills had anything to do with assault weapons. We did get an important strengthening of red-flag laws, coming in light of the Club Q shooting and the El Paso County sheriff’s refusal to use the law, as written, that might have possibly prevented the massacre. The legislature also passed a bill that requires a three-day waiting period after buying a gun, one that raises the age to purchase any kind of gun to 21, and another making it easier to bring a lawsuit against the gun industry.
They all passed easily. And a fifth bill, which would ban possession of ghost guns, is likely headed for easy passage.
Polis will sign each bill and probably expects that that’s enough to tamp down any serious criticism from the gun-safety community for the failure to pass an assault-weapons bill.
☀ MORE MIKE LITTWIN COLUMNS
So, yeah, we knew from the start. Leadership never supported it. The governor never supported it. And in the first run, the bill would have not only banned the sale of assault-style guns but would have banned possession. Gun-grabbing — and that would fit the definition — wasn’t going anywhere.
But the bill rapidly changed to banning future sales. As we just saw, that didn’t make a difference. Some blame the handling of the bill by the lone House sponsor, Rep. Elisabeth Epps, for its failure to build momentum. I wanted to ask Epps about that, but I was told she doesn’t speak to the press, which may not be the best way to get a controversial bill passed.
In the last moments, Epps tried to get a much-diminished bill — an assault-weapons ban that wasn’t quite a weapons ban, but one that would have banned rapid-fire trigger activators and/or bump stocks — through committee, but that also went nowhere.
That’s despite the fact that Illinois recently became the ninth state to ban assault-style weapons and that the state of Washington may well be the 10th. Recent polling has shown a decline nationally in support of assault-weapon bans, but without seeing any Colorado polling, I would confidently bet that a majority of the state’s voters favor one.
There are a couple of possible explanations for the Colorado legislature’s unwillingness to pass a ban. To begin with, there would have been a huge fight. This is guns we’re talking about — and that’s as emotionally freighted an issue as you can find. A significant number of Democrats would probably not have voted for it, with or without Polis’ approval.
And the one big fight Polis was ready to take on in this session was over his controversial land-use bill, meant to address the state’s affordable housing shortage by providing for higher density housing. The state’s larger cities have objected to the state taking over zoning laws, which have traditionally been left to localities. Denver’s outgoing mayor, Michael Hancock, came out strongly against the bill as a one-size-fits-all solution. But those supporting the bill make the case that the problem is bigger than any one city.
In any case, a diminished version of the land-use bill made it through committee, but the fight is far from over.
What I’d like to think is that the assault-weapons ban fight isn’t over either and that it will be back for consideration in next year’s legislative session — maybe even with Polis’ support or maybe, given the state’s tragic gun-violence history, with more Democrats willing to buck the governor if he doesn’t support it.
As we know, Democrats have unprecedented support in Colorado even as election-denying, Trump-supporting Republicans dig themselves an ever deeper hole. But what is the point of all that dominance if a critical issue like assault weapons is too tough for Democrats to handle?
No one should be left dying for an answer.
The Daily Sun-Up podcast | More episodes
Mike Littwin has been a columnist for too many years to count. He has covered Dr. J, four presidential inaugurations, six national conventions and countless brain-numbing speeches in the New Hampshire and Iowa snow.
The Colorado Sun is a nonpartisan news organization, and the opinions of columnists and editorial writers do not reflect the opinions of the newsroom. Read our ethics policy for more on The Sun’s opinion policy and submit columns, suggested writers and more to email@example.com. (Learn more about how to submit a column.)
Follow Colorado Sun Opinion on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook.