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An anti-gun group has sent letters to 24 Democratic governors demanding that each of them enact a gun ban and create weapon buyback programs in their states.

Early Monday morning people slowly flowed toward the Colorado Capitol in small groups, many from out of state, filling in the grassy areas on the west side of the building.

They say they’ll remain there until Gov. Jared Polis answers the demand of a national advocacy organization, Here 4 The Kids, and signs an executive order banning guns, or for at least four days, the same length of time the Selma to Montgomery marches lasted.

Polis’ office said he won’t sign an order that violates the U.S. Constitution.

But Here 4 The Kids organizers, some of whom are advocating that the Second Amendment be repealed, said other civil rights laws that seemed unthinkable decades ago passed following civil acts of disobedience, such as the marches from Selma to Montgomery that led to the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

In Denver predominantly white women, which was by design, gathered Monday to kick off the action. The sit-in is scheduled to run daily from 5 a.m. to 8 p.m. Actions have not been planned in the 23 other states.

The Colorado State Patrol, which manages security at the Capitol and its grounds, estimated the crowd at 500 to 800 people and said Monday afternoon that the protest was “completely peaceful and no arrests were made.”

Two women talk while holding signs along the street.
A woman sits silently in the grass.
Groups sit on the Capitol lawn.

A few hundred people gathered Monday morning at the Colorado Capitol to advocate a ban on guns. Organizers say they hope the civil action will be the spark that leads to change gun policies at the local and national levels. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun via Report for America)

Here 4 The Kids leaders said they organized the event because gun fatalities continue to rise in the U.S. and are now the leading cause of death among children and teens. They say their movement is starting in Colorado because the state has a long history of mass shootings, especially in schools. 

Clair Anderson, a marriage therapist from Minneapolis, said she came to Denver after thinking about a time when her daughter’s school was locked down because of a gun-related threat.

“Thankfully it was a prank, but at the moment we didn’t know that and it was really, really terrifying,” she said. “And after that I said some people don’t get this release of relief, it’s grief and I can’t imagine burying my child, so that’s why this is so important to me.”

A woman holds a picture of her daughter.
Jasmine Fallstich holds a photo of her daughter, Ava, 5. She traveled from Oakland, California, to the protest at the Colorado Capitol. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun via Report for America)

Jasmine Fallstich, 41, came to Denver from Oakland, California, and plans to sit-in through Wednesday. Her daughter is about to enter school.

“This is Ava, she’s 5,” Fallstich said, holding out a small photo of smiling child. “She’s starting school next year and I’m just really nervous for her. So nervous, in fact, that we’re moving to London. My partner’s English so we’re privileged to be able to move to another country. So yeah, that’s my baby and I’m here to protect her.”

The Colorado capitol.
A spokesman for the governor said in an email last week that an executive order banning guns would violate the Second Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun via Report for America)

Where Colorado and its governor stand

Polis’ staff met with Here 4 The Kids leaders in May. A spokesman for the governor said in an email last week that while Polis “shares the concerns about improving public safety, including reducing gun violence,” an executive order banning guns would violate the Second Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. 

“The governor takes the weighty responsibility of executive action and the trust Coloradans placed in him to govern responsibly seriously, and will not issue an unconstitutional order that will be struck down in court simply to make a public relations statement — he will continue to focus on real solutions to help make Colorado one of the 10 safest states,” the statement says.

The governor lacks the authority to suspend the U.S. Constitution or the Colorado constitution, nor is he able to create new law or access funds that are not appropriated by the General Assembly, both of which would be required for a firearm buyback program. 

Polis signed into law five major bills tightening gun regulations this year. 

The measures impose a three-day waiting period for all gun purchases, raise the minimum age for buying guns to 21 and expand Colorado’s red flag law to let teachers, prosecutors and medical professionals also petition a judge to order the temporary seizure of someone’s guns. A fourth piece of legislation makes it easier to sue the gun industry. 

A man signs a paper while a crowd stands behind him.
Gov. Jared Polis signs Senate Bill 279 into law, banning the manufacture, possession and sale of firearms and firearm parts without serial numbers, colloquially known as ghost guns, on Friday. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)

On Friday, Polis signed the fifth bill, which bans the manufacture, possession and sale of firearms and components without serial numbers, colloquially known as ghost guns.

Another bill, which would have banned the sale and transfer of some semi-automatic weapons, did not make it out of committee.

Challenging a 2-century old law

The organizers of the sit-in say they understand what they are asking for is unlawful.

“Yes, it is in violation of the Second Amendment, and what we are saying is, as a decent human being, at some point, you have to decide that the right to life and our childrens’ right to life must trump anybody’s right to bear arms,” Here 4 The Kids co-founder Saira Rao said Friday.

“The people who have been elected to office have to choose if they will choose children’s lives over guns,” said Rao, a former lawyer who unsuccessfully challenged U.S. Rep. Diana DeGette in the 2018 Democratic primary and then moved to Virginia. “That’s the fundamental choice. And if he’s saying he will not, he is making a choice that will put him on the wrong side of history.”

Change doesn’t happen without major shifts, she said. Americans had to amend the Constitution to abolish slavery, which was considered radical and unthinkable to many in 1865, at a time when slavery was the foundation of the American economy, she said.

“Imagine if people were just like, ‘We can’t do it.’ Indeed, they can, and they did, and now we have the 13th Amendment, which abolished slavery,” Rao said.

The process to amend the U.S. Constitution can be long and difficult, requiring the consent of 38 of the 50 states. For example, the Equal Rights Amendment, proposed in 1923, still has not been ratified.

A woman walks a street holding flyers.

Saira Rao canvasses door-to-door May 15 near Denver’s Cherry Creek neighborhood. The former Colorado congressional candidate selected Denver to launch Here 4 The Kids due to the relatively small number of people it would take to “shut down” the city’s downtown and draw national attention. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun via Report for America)

At some point, you have to decide that the right to life and our childrens’ right to life must trump anybody’s right to bear arms.

— Saira Rao, Here 4 The Kids co-founder

A proposed executive order

A copy of the proposed executive order submitted to Polis and the other governors by Here 4 The Kids states the governor’s office would declare a state of emergency to enable state agencies to respond with mitigation efforts, including the gun ban and mandatory buyback program.

The proposed order would suspend use, loading, possession, sale, transporting or carrying of all firearms in Colorado, including for personal protection, hunting or law enforcement while the rule remained in effect. Under the buyback program, resale of firearms would be banned.

Within 30 days of issuing the order, the governor would create an “Expert Gun Violence Disaster Response Committee,” to implement a plan to run the ban and buyback program and determine appropriate penalties for possession. 

The executive order would be declared in memory of children who lost their lives to gun violence and their grieving loved ones, and to prevent further deaths from guns, according to the document. It’s unclear how the program would be funded or how much it would cost. 

The documents sent to Polis cite grim statistics. From 1999 to 2019, the Denver metro area had the third-most mass shootings per capita, and more school shootings per 1 million people than any other large metro area in the U.S. Gun deaths among teens and children rose 50% from 2019 to 2021, the year Colorado recorded its highest firearm-related death rate in at least 40 years.

Four women stand holding signs.
Demonstrators from Canada were among those gathered at the Colorado Capitol to advocate a ban on guns. Mass shootings led the Canadian government to issue an advisory against travel to the U.S. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun via Report for America)

In Colorado, the rate of gun deaths increased 41% from 2011 to 2020, compared to a 33% increase nationwide. During those same years, the rate of gun suicides increased 28% in Colorado compared with  12% nationally, and gun homicides increased 103% in Colorado compared to 70% nationwide, according to Everytown for Gun Safety, the largest gun violence prevention organization in the country.

In 2022, 1,033 people died in Colorado from gun violence, more than were killed in car crashes or by fentanyl overdoses, state health department data shows. Twenty children ages 5 through 14 died from gun violence in Colorado in 2022, up five from the year before. The number of gun deaths among people age 15 to 18 increased to 53.

On Monday, the gathered protesters observed 10 minutes of silence every hour, followed by the reading of 150 names of people who died because of gun violence. Here 4 The Kids organizers say the list has more than 2,500 names on it.

State Rep. Tom Sullivan, a Centennial Democrat whose son was killed in the 2012 Aurora theater shooting, said there isn’t a single approach to addressing gun violence and all ideas for solutions should be welcomed.

Two women sit behind signs.

Gun violence in schools

Kenda Keenan, right, talks about her experience in school. Ashley Walsh sits to her left.

“I was a school secretary eight years ago and I had to walk the halls during a drill and jiggle the doorknobs to make sure they were all locked and see if anyone moved or made a noise. Walking through a full elementary school in utter silence, it was awful.

“That was eight years ago and nothing has gotten better.”

“I’m not so sure, from what I know about this group, and what they’re moving forward with, (that this) is something that really helps us here in Colorado in the long run,” said Sullivan, one of the first relatives of a person murdered in a mass shooting to hold elected office. “But that doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t be standing up to talk about the public health crisis and we welcome that voice.”

Ashley Walsh, 38, a health care worker in Denver, used to work as a pre-K paraprofessional in Denver Public Schools, where active-shooter drills were conducted with students huddled in classroom bathroom, the only space with no windows.

“Not only are we already trying to keep 30 4-year-olds quiet during a lockdown, but we’re trying stop them from triggering the automatic toilet, problem-solving as the teacher and the para: If this were an active situation, how can we keep this toilet from flushing and alerting the shooter that someone’s in here? How f-ing terrifying,” Walsh said.

A Denver sit-in

Although Here 4 The Kids is led and planned by women of color, the organization is asking white women to be the people who actually sit-in at the Capitol because they’re more privileged than women of color, they’re less likely to be brutalized by police and their demands are often taken more seriously when they plea for political or economic change. 

In this way, the event proposes to use “dual power to make change,” said Parker McMullen Bushman, who would give up two guns used for hunting if the ban were enacted. “I’m hoping with that kind of makeup, this is something that will be heard.”

A crowd looks toward a woman speaking on the steps of a home.
Author and activist Regina Jackson, right, speaks to Here 4 The Kids volunteers before they canvass door-to-door near Denver’s City Park neighborhood. The movement is led by women of color, but they are asking white women to be the people who actually sit-in because they are more likely to be taken seriously when demanding change, organizers say. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun via Report for America)

“When white women gather I think people listen more and there’s less of a view that it’s a riot with disgruntled people — it’s a group of concerned community members with a message,” McMullen Bushman said.

People of color and people with disabilities are encouraged to register for a remote campaign, which will run at the same time as the sit-in and offer opportunities for action through social media messaging and storytelling, according to the Here 4 The Kids website. Organizers said they hoped 25,000 people would participate in the Denver sit-in.

The movement is a state-by-state one that acknowledges guns have taken over America, Rao said. 

“We now have way more guns in the country than people. We made this up and we can unmake it and what that means is getting the Second Amendment repealed,” she said in early May while the organization campaigned and held public forums to educate the community.

I’m not so sure, from what I know about this group, and what they’re moving forward with, (that this) is something that really helps us here in Colorado in the long run. But that doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t be standing up to talk about the public health crisis and we welcome that voice.

— State Rep. Tom Sullivan, whose son was killed in the 2012 Aurora theater shooting

A woman holds coffee while standing next to a sign on the street.
People line a street with signs.

Katie Bowen of Littleton joins hundreds of demonstrators at the Colorado Capitol.

A new movement

Rao came up with the idea for the sit-in on March 27, after the mass shooting at a school in Nashville in which three children and three adults were killed. There have been dozens of shootings since then, but this one stood out to her because it felt eerily similar to the 2012 Sandy Hook school shooting in Connecticut, about 20 miles from where she lived at the time.

The Sandy Hook shooting, which left 20 elementary school kids and six adults dead, seemed to linger in the news cycle for months, but Nashville did not, Rao said. “So that is how much we have accepted mass death and mass death of America’s most precious people.”

On March 27, President Joe Biden said he was “doing everything he could” to reduce gun violence but that Congress must do more. 

“Congress has already told us repeatedly they’re not going to do anything, so what this means is we have full, federal, institutional failure,” Rao said.

On April 10, the week after Rao posted about the event on social media, 350 people attended the first public Zoom meeting she held introducing the idea of the sit-in. “So many people showed up and most of the people there bought in,” she said. 

Here 4 The Kids now has almost 60,000 followers on Instagram. Here 4 The Kids has not spent any money on advertising, she said.

Celebrities Chelsea Handler, Amanda Seales, Lake Bell, Michaela Watkins, Yvette Nicole Brown, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Desi Lydic support the movement, Rao said. 

Recent mass shootings have led multiple countries — including Canada, Australia and the U.K. — to issue travel warnings to their citizens visiting America. 

Jenny Dahl, a member of the organizing team, said she was living and working in Littleton when the Columbine High School shooting happened in 1999. Many of her colleagues had children attending the school, including one who was killed during the rampage that left 14 students and a teacher dead and 21 others injured by gunfire.

“I can’t imagine a world where we continue to send our kids to school and be fearful,” Dahl said Monday morning. “That’s not how I went to school and it’s ridiculous that we’re contemplating things like bulletproof backpacks and lockdown drills instead of focusing on the problem, which is guns.”

A woman poses for a picture.
Jenny Dahl joins demonstrators at the Capitol. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun via Report for America)

Erika Righter, a Denver-based organizer for Here 4 The Kids, said some people from other countries have told her they’re involved in the movement because they fear an epidemic of gun violence will make its way to their countries and that they are shocked Americans have become “accustomed” to such violence.

McMullen Bushman said they are willing to give up guns “because I’m tired of seeing people die and something has to be done differently. I don’t think any excuse is worth a kid’s life.”

Two people hold up a sign that reads, "Protect kids not guns."

Gun violence in the family

Jessica Makinson, right, a writer and director from from Los Angeles, said her cousin shot and killed his wife and shot his daughter in Arizona in 2020.

“No one really talked about it in my family. It was so devastating and there’s a shame associated with that action that kept people from talking about it….We need to process the information and talk about it, in order to heal.

“I’ve had people who have heard my story and have asked to give me a hug and they have warmth in their eyes and a generosity of spirit that is really stunning. When you’re at home by yourself, you don’t realize that there are people that care about what you’re going through.”

“I think that we have to be willing to have those conversations and say, ‘How can this be done differently? Is there a program where we can borrow guns — maybe through Colorado Parks and Wildlife — or specific hunting (organizations)? And does it have to be that everyone has their own gun?’ I don’t think that’s necessary. Given all of the carnage and death around this, I would be willing to give up my guns for something to be done differently and for there to be change.”

There has been “so much support” for maintaining the status quo on guns. Whenever conversations about gun control arise, many people view the dialogue as a threat to the Second Amendment, which prevents meaningful discussion, McMullen Bushman said.

“We’re not imaginative at all for what possible solutions can be and I think having a conversation that’s so bold as, ‘We’re going to ban all guns and have a buyback program’ is just as radical as, ‘You can’t do anything to stop and curb gun violence or how people get ahold of guns because you would be infringing on Second Amendment rights,’” McMullen Bushman said. “It is just as radical and it is what is needed to pull us hopefully to some kind of accord along the middle.”

Righter is participating in the sit-in on Monday in part because her best friend, Alicia Cardenas, was murdered during a 2021 shooting rampage that started at her tattoo shop, Sol Tribe Tattoo, on South Broadway in Denver. By the time the spree killing ended in Lakewood, four other people were dead and more had been wounded.

“There’s not a day in my life where it is not affecting my life. I am a completely different person,” Righter said. “I thought this was going to take me out. It is unlike anything I’ve ever experienced.”

If Americans can address the coronavirus pandemic but won’t resolve rising gun violence, she said, the country has lost its moral compass. 

Mass shootings get the attention they deserve, Righter said. But a higher number of gun deaths by suicide, homicide, domestic violence and accidents are seldom discussed, she said. Righter hopes the sit-in will encourage people to think about the widespread damage caused by guns. There are many people affected by these crimes, she said, including loved ones of both victims and perpetrators.

“We’re looking at ‘How do we mitigate the problem once it’s already happened?’ But we’re refusing to deal with the roots of this,” she said. “No one is safe now — whether you’re in a church, a school or a synagogue. There’s no one who has been unaffected by gun violence.”

Tatiana Flowers is the equity and general assignment reporter for the Colorado Sun and her work is funded by a grant from the Colorado Trust. She has covered crime and courts, plus education and health in Colorado, Connecticut, Israel and Morocco....

Ciara Zavala is a recent graduate of High Point University. She is interested in using multimedia to tell stories of all kinds.

Parker Yamasaki covers arts and culture at The Colorado Sun as a Poynter-Koch Media and Journalism Fellow and former Dow Jones News Fund intern. She has freelanced for the Chicago Reader, Newcity Chicago, and DARIA, among other publications,...