The national News21 Initiative brings together a select group of student journalists to produce a major national investigation into a topic of wide interest. This year, News21 has documented the struggle over gun rights and regulations in America. Under the direction of some of the nations best professional investigative journalists, 29 students from 16 universities have traveled the country to produce text, videos and interactive graphics to tell the story “Gun Wars: The Struggle Over Rights and Regulation in America.” Over the next two weeks we will be featuring much of their reporting. You can view the entire project at the News21 website.
LITTLETON, Colo. - At dusk on a June day, Columbine High School is empty. Sprinkler jets stream rainbows across the fading sunlight and bright green lawn. “Safety first” signs are taped on all the doors.
Fifteen years ago, English teacher Paula Reed thought something different might come from the deaths of 12 students and one teacher at the hands of two teenagers, that heightened awareness of gun violence would yield answers to the question of gun safety.
History has proven her wrong.
“It simply created a huge chasm, at least in terms of what we're talking about as a nation,” she said. “What I see us talking about in the media and on social media is this hardline, ‘Guns are evil, we need to get rid of all of them and the NRA's evil,' and, 'You can pry my gun out of my cold, dead hand; don't come after my guns.’
“I think most of us are in the middle, but that's not where the discussion is occurring. And because of that, we can't have a sane discussion that results in sane solutions.”
After the Aurora and Sandy Hook shootings, Colorado’s legislature ushered in unprecedented gun control laws, including universal background checks and a ban on high-capacity magazines. But gun rights activists fueled two historic senator recalls and a resignation. A group of sheriffs and gun industry stakeholders sued Gov. John Hickenlooper, who in June took a public step back from the laws he favored a year ago.
This is a state divided by two high-profile mass shootings that resulted in 27 deaths; between gun-rights supporters and gun-control advocates; by a set of laws that continues to inspire dissent among residents and lawmakers. As elections approach, conservative lobbyists and lawmakers plan to grab hold of public opposition toward gun control, find a path toward redder terrain and win back their firearms rights no matter how long it takes.
Eleven years ago, Colorado’s Republican-dominated legislature likely couldn’t have passed the gun control legislation that defines today’s debate.
Following the Columbine shooting in 1999, a bill in 2000 closed the loophole that allowed the two teenagers who committed the attacks to legally obtain their guns from a friend who bought them at a gun show. Between 2000 and 2013, Colorado only saw five gun-related bills pass, the most consequential of which barred felons and those convicted of domestic violence from possessing firearms.
“The gun issue … just wasn’t on my radar screen,” said John Straayer, a political science professor at Colorado State University who has observed the legislature for more than 40 years. “I remember more contentious blockbuster issues having to do with mandating motorcycle helmets than having to do with guns until rather recently.”
In 2004, Democrats gained control of the entire legislature, which they’ve held but for a brief stint in 2011 and 2012. And that Democrat-dominant culture, as well as a shift in the national narrative, was the impetus for major changes, Straayer said.
“State after state after state is trying to do something about (gun violence),” Straayer said. “What’s happening nationwide is happening in Colorado. The salience of the whole gun issue has stimulated the introduction of this kind of gun legislation.”
In early 2013, Colorado’s legislature introduced Aurora- and Sandy Hook-inspired gun control measures that got the state talking about firearms. House Bill 1224 banned the sale and transfer of high-capacity ammunition magazines. Senate Bill 195 required concealed-carry permit applicants to take in-person training. House Bill 1229 required background checks for private gun sales and transfers, already standard for public sales, and mental health reporting to a federal database.
As the snow was melting to feed Colorado’s mountain streams, Hickenlooper signed the bills into law and Colorado made some of the most dramatic gun policy changes in the country.
“We did more than we have in the last 20 years in moving Colorado forward,” said former Sen. Angela Giron of Pueblo, who was ousted in one of the recalls.
Democrats have been able to increase funding, get better candidates to run and benefited from a shifting demographic. But Straayer said Republicans have contributed far more to Colorado’s leftward shift since the 1970s.
“The Republican Party, over a three-decade period of time, pretty much eliminated the moderates in the party and moved further and further to the right and made themselves less and less attractive to the moderate voter, to the swing voter, to the unaffiliated voter,” Straayer said.
Patrick Neville was 15 when he witnessed Columbine shooters Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris walk toward his high school and open fire on classmates. Now, the Iraq War veteran is a self-described principled conservative running as the Republican nominee for the Colorado House in District 45, about 40 miles south of Denver.
On guns, the man who used them as a tool in Iraq feels Coloradans should harness rather than fear their power.
“I was a college student and I was unable to conceal carry, at the time they banned it on campuses. I felt unsafe,” Neville said at a picnic table in downtown Castle Rock, Colorado. “I didn’t feel unsafe in Iraq, even in the most dangerous areas, because I knew we took the steps to prepare ourselves and I had the opportunity to defend myself.“
Neville is one of 11 Colorado legislature candidates with an endorsement from Rocky Mountain Gun Owners, a significant player in gun politics for the state. To secure an endorsement, candidates must weather an intense vetting process and a questionnaire that ensures they won’t waiver on protecting and regaining gun rights, Neville said.
The endorsement is significant for Republicans. Ten of the group’s 11 candidates won their Republican primaries. The races are especially significant in five Senate districts because Republicans are one seat shy of the majority.
Luke Wagner ,an information technology guy, had never done anything more political than voting before he decided to get involved with what he likes to call the “second shift for liberty.” After Democrats passed their major pieces of legislation in 2013, he and other like-minded Coloradans formed the Basic Freedom Defense Fund to organize the recall elections of Giron and fellow Democratic Sen. John Morse.
Now, Wagner and his supporters have shifted their focus toward a new organization: the Colorado Second Amendment Association.
“The way we got here was a slow process,” Wagner said. “Our rights were chipped away at, chipped away at, chipped away at, until there was an opportunity to go for the gusto. And the only way to get our rights back is to chip our way back, chip our way back, chip our way back.”
Wagner and some of the other organizers of the recall movement created an organization that wouldn’t lobby, but would instead educate people about guns and create a “network in Colorado of people who are willing to stand up for their rights,” he said.
The organization supports repealing the laws passed in 2013 and it keeps gun rights advocates updated with frequent blog posts and a monthly newsletter.
Despite Wagner’s concerted and successful campaign to throw two senators out of office, Giron and Morse still say they did the right thing.
“Sacrificing my political career … to do this was just an amazingly small price to pay compared to the price that the families of these gun-violence victims pay every minute of every day,” said Morse, a former police officer. “So I haven’t looked back and felt badly about this at all."
John Cooke holds the reins of his brown horse in his left hand. His right bursts through the clear, Rocky Mountain sky, waving at the crowd gathered in Parish Park.
It’s only the start of parade season, and Cooke still has plenty of appearances to make as he runs for a state Senate seat, where his competition will be a Democrat in a heavily Republican district.
Cooke, armed with a Smith and Wesson .45-caliber pistol, keeps a smile on his face and his eye on the prize.
If elected, Cooke will try to repeal the guns laws passed in 2013, although he said that won’t necessarily be his first move because so many Democrats occupy the General Assembly.
Cooke leads a group of 55 Colorado sheriffs who backed a lawsuit to overturn the laws restricting magazine size and requiring universal background checks. U.S. District Judge Marcia Krieger ruled that the sheriffs couldn’t sue as elected officials, so Cooke and eight others signed on as private citizens.
In late June, Krieger threw out the suit, ruling that the magazine limit and background-check law aren’t an unreasonable burden on gun owners and sellers and therefore don’t infringe on Second Amendment rights. Plaintiffs filed a court notice July 28 that they plan to appeal Krieger’s decision.
In the meantime, Cooke refuses to enforce the laws: He argues they’re unenforceable as well as unconstitutional.
“It’s not her job to tell me what I can and can’t enforce,” Cooke said of Krieger’s ruling. “I’m still the one that has to say, ‘Where do I put my priorities and resources?’ and it’s not going to be there. I’d rather capture the burglars, the child rapists, the drug dealers, that type of thing. That’s where my priorities are at, not trying to arrest law-abiding citizens.”
Robby Korth and Jacy Marmaduke are News21 Peter Kiewet Fellows.