Colorado lawmakers are facing pressure to act from constituents and are in the “early stages” of discussing gun reform proposals after a man opened fire at a Boulder supermarket last week, the state’s top Democratic senator told CNN.
“We’re talking probably a couple of weeks before we introduce substantial policy, but it’s all very much a working process,” Colorado Senate Majority Leader Steve Fenberg told CNN in an interview Friday, adding that Democrats are considering several ideas including a statewide assault weapons ban and mental health reform.
He said the “broad” conversations among the Senate Democratic caucus and the House Democratic caucus are “ongoing with a variety of folks” including law enforcement, local government officials, mental health experts and gun reform advocacy organizations, like Everytown for Gun Safety, Giffords, and Moms Demand Action.
He added that they are also having discussions with Colorado Democratic Gov. Jared Polis’ office “like we do on every important policy.”
Fenberg said they’re casting a “wide net to make sure that whatever we do, that it’s thoughtful, actually effective in preventing future tragedies, and that it’s the right step forward.”
“People are grieving, people are sad. There’s a lot of pain. But at the same time, they’re incredibly angry because people understand this didn’t have to happen. But it happened because our society allowed it to,” he told CNN.
Democrats have full control of Colorado’s government, with a 20-15 majority in the Colorado Senate and a 41-24 person majority in the state House, making it likely legislation tightening restrictions on firearms could be passed. Though legislation has passed more easily or faster before in states with trifectas, where one party controls the governor’s office and both chambers of the legislature, advocates for stricter gun laws have had a harder time getting gun bills and assault style weapons bans across the finish line. Last year, Virginia, where Democrats have full control of government, signed into law a significant slate of gun measures, except an assault weapons ban.
A one- or two-party solution?
“Whatever we decide to introduce, I’m pretty confident we will be able to get through the process,” Fenberg said, but added that it would be challenging to pass a major gun reform package due to an expected vigorous push back from GOP legislators and gun rights advocates.
He added that there could be legal action taken in response.
“That’s another reason it’s important that we do it thoughtfully, so that it can withstand court challenges, so that it’s enforceable, and will actually make a difference,” he said.
Senate GOP spokesman Sage Naumann acknowledged to CNN that with Democrats having full control of state government, “There is little Republicans can do to prevent them from passing any legislation – including an assault weapons ban.”
“Hopefully we can table that legislation and instead focus on bipartisan solutions before it gets to that point,” he told CNN via email, adding that Senate Republicans “stand opposed to any measure that limits the liberties of law-abiding Coloradans.”
Senate Republicans are instead discussing other legislative proposals they feel would more adequately prevent another mass shooting and are pushing the state to massively invest in mental health, according to Naumann.
“We have a mental health crisis – a respect for life crisis – that no simple ban is going to fix. Democrats seem fixated on addressing the symptom, but we want to have a conversation about curing the disease,” Naumann told CNN. “Behind every mass shooting is a very broken individual. Once they take the step to selecting a weapon, it’s way too late. We have failed. Let’s get them and their families the help they need, let’s give law enforcement the resources they require, and let’s get to the core of this issue.”
Republicans and Democrats, however, have started discussing mental health policies they can pass in a bipartisan fashion, according to Fenberg and Naumann.
Fenberg said they’re looking to strengthen Colorado’s gun laws already on the books, including closing loopholes with the background checks law, and potentially barring individuals with a record of violent misdemeanors from purchasing a firearm.
“We very much know and recognize that there’s not one single policy that can prevent a tragedy from happening,” Fenberg said. “There’s not one gun policy that will end gun violence forever.”
Some have called for action on a federal level, but the US Senate’s likelihood of passing gun legislation remains slim given that would require significant Republican support to overcome a filibuster.
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, a New York Democrat, said Thursday that he plans to put H.R. 8, a bill that would expand background checks, on the Senate floor. The House earlier this month passed that bill along with H.R. 1146, which would close what’s known as the “Charleston Loophole” that allows some firearms to be transferred by licensed gun dealers before the required background checks are completed.
Sens. Chris Murphy, a Connecticut Democrat, and Pat Toomey, a Pennsylvania Republican, both expressed optimism in separate interviews on NBC Sunday that the Senate could pass bipartisan legislation expanding background checks on firearms, though they differed on how far they think Congress can go on the issue of gun control and the political implications it could have on the filibuster.
“I’m not interested in getting 50 votes in the Senate. I’m interested in getting 60 votes,” Murphy told NBC’s “Meet The Press,’ noting that Schumer has tasked him with talking with his Democratic and Republican colleagues over the coming weeks to work to find a consensus on a bill to expand background checks.
“I know there’s the simplest of regulations that can passed,” Ryan Borowski, who was shopping at the King Soopers grocery store in Boulder when the gunman opened fire last Monday, told CNN’s Alisyn Camerota in an interview Tuesday. “And for some reason our politicians aren’t doing it. What those regulations are, I’m not sure. But I know there’s some simple clear-headed regulations that can be put into place.”
Colorado’s recent efforts
Speaking during a virtual townhall Wednesday, Fenberg and other Democrats stressed that federal action would be the “most effective way to address a lot of this,” but Fenberg said, “that doesn’t mean without that action, or while we wait for that action, that we should just sit around and see what happens.”
The state currently requires universal background checks, prohibits high capacity magazines capable of holding more than 15 rounds, and has implemented an “Extreme Risk Protection Order,” also know as a “red flag” law. The “red flag” law, which went into effect last year, allows a judge to temporarily remove weapons from people considered a threat to themselves or others.
House Speaker Alec Garnett said in a statement to CNN that “Colorado has taken meaningful action to reduce gun violence in the last decade” and that before the Boulder shooting, the General Assembly had already been moving two proposals through the legislative process.
House Bill 21-1106, which would require safe storage of firearms so a juvenile can’t access them, is currently in a Senate committee. Senate Bill 21-078, which would require a gun owner to report the loss or theft of a firearm to law enforcement within five days, will have its second reading in the House on Monday, itching closer to final passage.
The 21-year-old suspect in last week’s massacre allegedly used a Ruger AR-556 pistol – a type of AR-15 rifle but with a shorter barrel. He had purchased the weapon six days before the shooting that killed 10 people, according to his arrest warrant affidavit. The weapon had been modified with an arm brace, a law enforcement source told CNN. The suspect also passed a background check to purchase the weapon in Arvada, a suburb of Denver, according to the gun shop that sold the suspect the firearm.
Before these details were known, the shooting drew attention to an ordinance the Boulder city council passed in 2018 that banned the sale and possession of assault weapons and large capacity magazines. Earlier this month, a Colorado district court judge blocked the city from enforcing its ban, citing a 2003 Colorado state law that prohibits a local government from imposing weapons measures that contradict state or federal law.
Fenberg told CNN on Friday that he had already been working on repealing the state law that allowed the judge to overturn Boulder’s ordinance, in between the time the ruling was handed down and when the shooting happened.
“I want to make sure we do in a way we’re not inadvertently allowing some communities to go less strict than state law. The intention is so that communities can go more restrictive,” he told CNN.
Colorado state law defines a dangerous weapon as a firearm silencer, machine gun, short shotgun, short rifle, or ballistic knife, while an illegal weapon means a blackjack, a gas gun, or metallic knuckles. It does not include the assault style weapons – such as semi-automatic rifles that can accept a detachable magazine and have a pistol grip – that Boulder attempted to ban with its ordinance.
Boulder’s ordinance would also have prohibited magazines capable of holding more than 10 rounds.
The suspect’s brother told CNN last week that the suspect may have mental illnesses and that he became increasingly “paranoid” around 2014, believing he was being followed and chased.
The suspect also pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor count of third-degree assault in 2018 after attacking a high school classmate one year earlier, according to court documents and a police report. He was sentenced to one year of probation, 48 hours of community service and anger response treatment, court documents said.
Nothing in the federal system would have prevented the suspect from passing a background check and buying a firearm, a law enforcement source previously told CNN.
“It’s just been absolutely devastating to all of us. And it just has got to stop, it just has to stop,” local elementary school teacher Jana Bledsoe, who knew one of the victims, Boulder Police Officer Eric Talley, told CNN during a vigil Thursday night sponsored by the gun safety group Moms Demand Action. “We’ve got to do something, we do not need these weapons of destruction in the hands of ordinary citizens. Absolutely ban assault weapons.”
CNN’s Ray Sanchez, Travis Caldwell, Samira Said, Mallika Kallingal and Whitney Wild contributed to this report.