Two Colorado state senators face recall elections over state's new tougher gun laws
Gun rights activists nationwide see the election as a pivotal moment in the gun debate
Colorado has rich history of guns and is site of two of the worst mass shootings in the U.S.
Sandy Phillips was a few days away from visiting her daughter, Jessie, an aspiring sports journalist, in Colorado. They exchanged text messages shortly after midnight on a Thursday, looking forward to the visit and talking about the new Batman movie Jessie was about to see.
They said goodnight, and Phillips tried going to sleep at her home in San Antonio.
Twenty minutes later she got a frantic phone call from Jessie’s close friend, Brent, who was with her at the theater. He said there was a shooting, that he was shot twice.
“I said, ‘Where’s Jessie?’” Phillips recalls, before taking a short pause. “He said, ‘I tried’.”
Jessica Ghawi, 24, was one of 12 people shot to death in July 2012 at a theater in Aurora, Colorado. Fifty-eight people were wounded. For Phillips, sharing her painful but final memory of Jessie is an emotional endeavor. Her voice thins and grows shaky as she talks about that night.
But it’s a challenge she has taken on dozens of times a day for the past week, going door to door in Colorado Springs as she asks voters to support a state lawmaker she never knew until this year: State Sen. John Morse.
As Senate president, Morse helped usher the passage of Colorado’s restrictive new firearm laws. The state’s deeply rooted gun rights establishment was not happy, and Morse is now one of two state senators on the ballot Tuesday in Colorado’s first recall at the state level.
Gun rights activists nationwide see the election as a pivotal moment in the gun debate. If Morse and his Democratic colleague, state Sen. Angela Giron of Pueblo, are both ousted, some say it will send a cautionary message to other lawmakers: Mess with guns and this could happen to you.
The other side also views the recall as a potential turning point. If the senators win, it could signal a significant show of public support at the polls for regulations meant to curb gun violence. Gun control advocates also argue a victory would deal a major blow to what they consider the powerful voices that control the debate.
National groups on both ends of the spectrum, including the National Rifle Association and Mayors Against Illegal Guns, have poured hundreds of thousands of dollars into the contests in what amounts to a proxy war over firearm regulations. At stake is a victory belt that can be used as leverage in future showdowns over the issue, either at the state level or in Washington.
Phillips and her husband, Lonnie, have been calling on 60 to 80 homes each day in Colorado for more than a week. While a number of conversations are short-lived, she shares her story with anyone willing to listen, hoping it will change minds.
“It’s exhausting. You can only tell it so many times before you go to a very sad and dark place,” she said. “But you take a break and have a good cry, pull your boot straps back up and head out again. We can’t just sit quietly by.”
A once-unlikely place for new gun laws
In March, Colorado became the second state after New York to put new gun laws on the books after the Newtown, Connecticut, elementary school shooting, which left 20 children and six adults dead.
Effective July 1, Colorado’s new laws limit ammunition magazines to 15 rounds and require universal background checks on all gun purchases. Gun buyers, rather than sellers, must pay for their own background checks, a $10 fee.
The U.S. Senate tried passing similar laws earlier this year amid a highly charged national debate that rattled both sides of the issue. While most of the measures had little chance of survival, the Senate even fell short of the votes needed to proceed with what seemed to be the most viable piece of legislation: a bipartisan measure that would require background checks on firearms bought online and at gun shows.
Historically a conservative state, Colorado’s political makeup has started to shift. It is one of three states in the West with a Democratic trifecta: The party holds both chambers of the legislature and the governor’s office. While Colorado has trended blue in recent years, its blood runs red with a history rich in gun culture and tradition.
“Firearms are intertwined with the fabric of Colorado,” said Jon Caldara, president of the Independence Institute, a Colorado conservative think tank. With the backing of 55 of the state’s 62 elected sheriffs, Caldera’s organization filed a lawsuit challenging the new laws.
As the home of two of the worst mass shootings in U.S. history — Aurora and Columbine — Colorado has been a hot zone for the gun control debate. When state Senate committees held hearings one day over the gun measures in March, gun rights activists flooded the capitol in protest and drove around the building, honking horns for hours to cause a distraction. According to the Denver Post, a small plane flew overhead, carrying a floating message to the governor: Don’t take our guns.
At the same time, lawmakers inside were also hearing from survivors and victims of gun violence, including former students at Columbine. Mark Kelly, husband of former U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, also testified about the shooting that seriously wounded his wife in the nearby state of Arizona.
By the end of the night, the two committees passed multiple gun control proposals. By the end of the month, Gov. John Hickenlooper signed the measures into law.
‘We can’t continue to bury our children’
Morse, the Senate president who helped lead the way in the gun control push, now finds himself campaigning against a recall effort mounted against him a little more than a year before the end of his second term in office. Term-limited, he can’t run for re-election.
But he said he doesn’t have any regrets in fighting for tighter gun laws. Asked why he advocated for new regulations in the face of fierce opposition, Morse pointed to the real catalyst of the renewed firearm debate.
“The vision of 6- and 7-year-olds in Newtown being carted out on stretchers, with their Power Rangers T-shirts now covered by a white sheet,” he said. “We can’t continue to bury our children.”
It didn’t take long for gun rights supporters to organize after the governor signed the gun package. With the help of the NRA, groups across the state attempted to gather signatures to recall a four state senators.
Activists, however, collected the required amount of signatures in only two districts, those represented by Morse and Giron. Morse’s district is largely a swing district, with nearly four in 10 active voters being unaffiliated with a political party. Thirty-four percent are registered Democrats and 26% are registered Republicans. Giron’s district has a larger Democratic presence.
Since the recall tactic was first used in Los Angeles in 1903, the effort has mostly been used at the municipal or local level, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Recalls are rarely successful for state lawmakers; attempts have led to elections only 38 times in more than a century, with 17 of those officials actually being booted out of office.
In Colorado, opponents of the recall argue the tactic is a troubling sign for democracy. If recalls evolve into successful political maneuvers, Morse said, then both sides will start to use it and “we’ll end up with general election in even-numbered years and recalls in odd-numbered years.”
“It will make governing even more difficult than it is,” he said.
But supporters of the Colorado recall say the effort is a prime example of democracy at work.
“Democracy doesn’t really live by a calendar,” said Jennifer Kerns, a spokesperson for the group behind the recall effort against Morse. “It’s up to the people when they want to rise up and do something like this.”
Victory already declared
Giron didn’t know much about guns when she was elected to office; she went to Denver to tackle other social and economic issues. When the debate exploded earlier this year, she decided to learn more about firearms. She held town halls, attended her first gun show and went to a shooting range with some friends.
She ultimately decided her district — and state — would be better off with laws that seek to keep guns out of “the hands of felons,” she said, referring to the universal background check measure.
“This is not the wrong business to be fearful about doing the right thing,” she added.
But a majority of Colorado voters disagree with Giron. According to a Quinnipiac University poll, 54% of voters oppose the new gun laws, compared to 40% who support them. At the same time, the poll indicates a majority don’t believe Giron and Morse should be recalled for their votes. By a margin of 60%-31%, Colorado voters say people should wait for re-election rather than attempt a recall when they disagree with their representative.
Kevin Healey, a 34-year-old voter in Pueblo, illustrates how the gun control debate in Colorado transcends traditional political divides. A staunch Second Amendment defender, Healey describes himself as an independent who “leans very far to the left,” except when it comes to gun rights issues.
Healey argued the effort to regulate guns to stop gun violence is a useless battle and lawmakers should be tackling mental health issues instead. “It’s almost like fighting to the south when the problem is up north. It doesn’t make any sense.”
Healey signed a recall petition a few months ago to put Giron on the ballot—a decision, he said, that did not come easily.
“Pueblo is such a small town, it felt as if I was betraying someone behind her back,” he said. Though he’s never really met her, he sent her an e-mail explaining why he had to sign the petition.
But after “struggling for months,” Healey has decided he’s not going to vote against Giron on Tuesday after all. While he disagrees with her on gun rights, he disagrees with her Republican opponent in the recall on just about everything. Essentially, he sees it as picking the lesser of two bad options.
Still, Healey doesn’t regret signing the original petition. No matter what the outcome, he thinks the recall sends a message to elected Democrats across the country that they can’t “just take the Second Amendment lightly.”
“It will make people think twice and be creative in legislating instead of doing something symbolic but completely useless,” he said. “I’m sure her intention was genuine, but there has got to be more creative modes to stopping the violence.”
Republican state Sen. Greg Brophy, who’s running for governor and has been part of the campaign to oust his Democratic colleagues, believes supporters of the recall have already won, because they got the warning out. “The future of the Second Amendment will be decided in Colorado,” he said.
He pointed to Giron’s district, where Democrats make up nearly half the active electorate, while unaffiliated voters make up 29% and Republicans make up 23%.
“The fact that a Democratic state senator in a reliably Democratic seat, Pueblo, is either going to lose a recall or barely retain her office – that’s a victory either way,” he said. “People in seats that aren’t as reliably Democratic might want to be careful about advancing the gun control agenda. I see Tuesday as a win-win, or quite possibly, a win-no lose.”
Not surprisingly, the two lawmakers whose names are on the ballot feel differently.
“The numbers are going to prove that in a state that had two of the largest tragedies in this country, it would have been a travesty not to address this issue,” Giron said.
Morse brushed off the notion that the recall has already done its work for gun rights activists.
“They haven’t won anything,” he said. “And hopefully won’t win anything.”