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Colorado gun control: Can state with pro-gun past enact new restrictions?

Colorado has a cultural history of gun ownership. It was also the site of two high-profile shootings. Five gun-control proposals are now moving through the Democratic-majority legislature.

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“I think clearly Colorado is sending a message to the rest of the nation,” says Tom Mauser, a gun-control advocate since 1999, when his son, Daniel, was killed in the Columbine shooting. “It’s traditionally been a pro-gun state. I think the message is that you can be pro-gun and respect gun rights and still say that you’ve got to have some limits on things.”

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Still, though the five bills have advanced through both houses (Democratic control of both houses is by a slim margin) and have the support of the governor, opposition has been fierce. Gun advocates have picketed the Capitol building, and lobby groups have threatened legislators from swing districts that they may suffer for their votes.

“What is pretty clear is that the approach by some of the Colorado legislators seems to be to try and put the burden of law on law-abiding people,” says NRA spokesman Andrew Arulanandam. “Whereas rational people realize that the focus ought to be on keeping guns out of the hands of criminals and those with mental problems who are predisposed to violence.”

Mr. Arulanandam also sought to minimize the national impact of the outcome in Colorado, either on other states or the federal government. “States are unique and sort of isolated in their actions,” he says.

Two highly controversial bills did not make it through last week, ultimately killed by their sponsors. One, backed by Senate president John Morse, would have made manufacturers and sellers of assault weapons liable for certain violent acts committed with those guns, if the gun buyer was someone who they “reasonably should have known might use the weapon” to cause harm. The other was a bill that would have banned concealed weapons on college campuses.

The liability bill, in particular, generated fierce criticism from many who labeled it as too extreme. “I think it generated an avalanche of e-mails,” says Mr. Ciruli, adding that “clearly, there are some boundaries out there.”

The bill banning concealed weapons on college campuses, meanwhile, became controversial after several Democratic legislators were portrayed as attacking or minimizing the experience of college rape survivors.

“I just want to say that actually, the statistics are not on your side,” State Sen. Evie Hudak told rape survivor Amanda Collins, after Ms. Collins testified about her experience being raped on a college campus. Though she had a concealed-carry permit, it was illegal on her Nevada campus to bring a gun on campus, and she wondered whether the outcome might have been different had she been armed.

Senator Hudak told her that statistics show that for every woman who uses a handgun to kill someone in self-defense, 83 are murdered by their attackers. But the remarks were portrayed as callous toward a victim, and followed remarks earlier in the week in which a House member suggested it was better for women to have call boxes, safe zones, and rape whistles than to be armed.

Colorado, which currently gets a “D” from the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, might move up to a C+ or B- if the current bills are passed, says Laura Cutilletta, a senior staff attorney at the center.

The background check, in particular, is important, and has been among the most popular measures for states enacting stricter gun laws, Ms. Cutilletta says.

“It’s a huge gap, a gaping loophole that we need to fill at the federal level … but that states have no choice but to do themselves. Colorado would be joining those states,” she says.

According to tracking by the Law Center, state legislatures have been active on both sides of the gun-control issue in 2013.

Over 600 bills strengthening gun-control laws have been introduced so far, an increase of 63 percent over the same time last year. Meanwhile, some 540 bills weakening gun-control laws have also been introduced – including bills in 34 states that would nullify federal firearms law in the state – a 14 percent increase.

That Colorado is among the first to move to restrict gun rights is significant in part for the symbolism, says Cutilletta, particularly as the site of two high-profile shootings.

“I think it really sends a message to the federal government that this is a bellwether state, that this is where the thinking is going in a state like Colorado, and that says a lot,” she says. “It signifies that people are fed up and ready to do something about it.”

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