AURORA | From students to senators, victims of Aurora’s gun violence crisis hail from all corners of the city, and the frequency of shootings is spurring stricter gun laws promoted by Aurora’s Democratic state lawmakers.
More than 200 people were shot in Aurora last year, and most murders investigated by Aurora police involved a firearm, according to the city’s police department. The phenomenon of shootings has grown steadily worse since 2020, not only in Aurora but also across the state and nation.
At the same time, state and local lawmakers have split along partisan lines on the question of how to address the problem, with conservatives calling for easing gun control and imposing stricter criminal penalties. Progressives are focusing on social services and, at least in the legislature, increasing gun control by limiting the public’s access to firearms.
Second Amendment advocates have responded by characterizing the Democrat-backed bills as an attack on the public’s right to bear arms and as a distraction from other problems facing Coloradoans, such as inflation and struggling schools.
“The Republicans who make up the House minority caucus come from every corner of our state and are also concerned about gun violence,” House Minority Leader Mike Lynch said in a Feb. 23 statement. “We must care about addressing the issue of gun crimes while also recognizing the utmost importance of protecting and honoring the liberties outlined in our founding documents.”
Shootings have garnered attention in part because of how they tend to involve and impact young people. The number of U.S. children under 18 who killed someone with a firearm jumped from 836 in 2019 to 1,150 in 2020, and today more people ages 1 to 19 die by gun violence than by any other cause, according to Kaiser Health News.
In New York City, the number of young people who killed someone with a gun has more than doubled, rising from 48 juvenile offenders in 2019 to 124 in 2022, according to data from the city’s police department. At the UChicago Medicine trauma center, the number of gunshot wounds in children under 16 has doubled in the past six years, one doctor told KHN.
Earlier this month, hundreds of students from Denver’s East High School skipped school to march to the Capitol and demand the Colorado General Assembly act on gun violence after their 16-year-old classmate, Luis Garcia, was shot to death.
Aurora police have also reported that up to half of the city’s violent crime may be associated with gang activity. But the city is also no stranger to mass shootings that have nothing to do with organized crime. In 2012, a lone gunman opened fire in an Aurora movie theater, killing a dozen people and injuring dozens more with a semiautomatic rifle, shotgun and pistol.
That attack prompted Democratic state Sen. Tom Sullivan, whose son Alex Sullivan was killed in the shooting, to become an outspoken advocate for gun control. Tom Sullivan was first elected to the state House of Representatives in 2018 and as of January now serves in the state Senate.
Sullivan, who said that he “could not have gotten elected” in 2013, credited Coloradans’ desire to curb gun violence for the majorities that the Democrats now enjoy in both chambers of the state legislature.
“It’s because Coloradans know gun violence prevention is something they want taken care of and something they want the Democrats to do, and that’s what we’re doing,” he said.
Sullivan joins Aurora Democratic Rep. Mike Weissman and others in sponsoring a bill that would expand the scope of the state’s “red flag” law. It’s one of a handful of pieces of major legislation aimed at curbing gun violence this session. Other bills would restrict sales of assault weapons, open the door for lawsuits against gun manufacturers and raise the minimum age for buying guns to 21.
The Sentinel spoke with Aurora lawmakers and others to better understand the limits of gun control legislation and how elected officials are hoping to prevent shootings.
Prohibiting assault weapon sales
State Sen. Rhonda Fields received a grim reminder of Aurora’s ongoing struggles last month when a stray bullet smashed through her living room window and struck a wall in her home.
Police believe the senator wasn’t targeted, tracing the bullet to a road rage shooting that took place on nearby Sable Boulevard. But the incident wasn’t the senator’s first brush with violence. In 2005, her son, Javad, was shot to death, along with his fiance, in retaliation for agreeing to testify at a murder trial.
Javad’s death ultimately pushed Fields into politics, and a regular legislative focus of Fields’ has been crime victims and victims of violence.
This year, the senator and Denver Democratic state House Rep. Elisabeth Epps are sponsoring a bill, which Fields referred to as the “Mass Shooting Prevention Act,” that would end the sale of certain rifles and pistols classified as “assault weapons,” along with rapid-fire trigger activators.
“These are the kinds of weapons that have rapid fire, and typically that means you’re trying to hit multiple targets or people in a short amount of time, and you can do a lot of damage,” Fields said. “These weapons and these bullets, when they do hit the human body and flesh, they do tremendous damage that’s hard to repair.”
The sale and transfer of rifles capable of firing .50 Browning Machine Gun ammunition would be prohibited under the act, as would semi-automatic rifles that take a detachable magazine and have one or more features such as a pistol grip, barrel shroud, threaded barrel, folding stock or flash suppressor.
Some of those same features on a semi-automatic pistol that takes a magazine or a shotgun with a revolving cylinders would also make those guns illegal to sell or transfer.
Not all mass shooters use high-powered rifles or extended magazines to commit acts of violence. The perpetrator of the 2007 Virginia Tech shooting, for example, wielded two pistols equipped with standard-sized magazines, yet managed to kill 32 people.
While Weissman acknowledged that “there’s no one bill that is going to do everything at once to keep innocent people from getting killed,” he said the types of weapons that would fall under the proposed assault weapons ban are specifically engineered to injure and kill people.
“We do see these weapons used, unfortunately, in a lot of mass shootings,” he said. “Just about any firearm can be lethal; the lethality of these kinds of weapons is quite high, though.”
The bill was introduced in the House and assigned to the Judiciary Committee on March 3.
Expanding Colorado’s ‘red flag’ law
Weissman joins Sullivan in sponsoring a bill that would allow doctors, mental health care professionals, licensed educators, school counselors and district attorneys to petition a court to prohibit someone from owning guns if that person is suspected to be a risk to themself or others.
The only people capable of requesting one of these extreme risk protection orders currently are family members, roommates and law enforcement officers.
Colorado’s law came under scrutiny last year following the Club Q shooting in Colorado Springs. The suspect in that shooting had been arrested previously for threatening to blow up his mother’s home with a homemade bomb, but neither the suspect’s family nor law enforcement petitioned the court in El Paso County to restrict the suspect’s access to guns.
A report by Kaiser Health News indicated that El Paso County was the least likely to accept an initial court petition of any Colorado county where more than three cases had been filed.
Senate President Steve Fenberg, one of the bill’s prime sponsors, said that expansion of the existing red flag law had been in discussion for several years but that the Club Q shooting had increased the urgency of bringing something to the table.
“As we’ve seen, in some areas in the state local law enforcement is not willing to file a red flag position to a court because they ideologically oppose it. Instead of thinking of ways to penalize or force something on law enforcement, we want to make sure that folks have alternative options if that is the case.”
Weissman said that, by expanding the pool of people who are able to ask the court to grant an extreme risk protection order, legislators hope to catch more potential shooters before they’re able to carry out an act of violence.
“We think that, regardless of where you live in Colorado, you should have the same right to feel protected by our gun violence prevention laws,” he said.
“We’ve realized that there are other folks in our state who may, in the course of their work, intersect with folks who are on the cusp of a mental health crisis. And part of what this bill seeks to do is empower those people to come forward in the name of public safety, to file a petition.”
Fields also said that giving more people the power to file petitions would close the “loophole” of reluctant sheriff’s offices declining to use the law to take away the guns of people who pose a legitimate threat.
“It’s not done randomly. A judge has to determine the merits of the whole scenario to decide that gun should be removed. I think it’s a good safety measure,” she said. “If we would have had all the right measures in place and they were followed, we might have been able to save some lives in Colorado Springs.”
Second Amendment advocates were more skeptical. Nikki Goeser — executive director of the Crime Prevention Research Center, a nonprofit research group with ties to gun rights activists — spoke against the bill at a Senate committee meeting March 8, describing it as unconstitutional and a violation of due process.
She also said the laws may make it less likely for gun owners to open up about mental health problems. Goeser described how, 13 years ago, she witnessed her husband being shot to death by a man who was stalking her and how she suffered from depression and anxiety following the attack.
“My stalker carried a gun illegally,” she said. “I had concerns for my safety. These are all normal human reactions to something that is horrific. … If my guns were taken away from me with no hearing, no opportunity to speak with mental health experts first, my basic human right of self-defense being stripped away from me would be trauma on top of trauma.”
The bill would also require the state to spend money on a campaign to educate the public about using the law. It passed the Senate on March 13 and was introduced in the House the next day.
Suing the firearms industry
Lawmakers spoke too of wanting to give survivors of shootings another way of obtaining justice by lifting state-level restrictions on lawsuits against firearm businesses.
State law currently limits such lawsuits to situations involving defective guns or ammunition. The change would allow civil lawsuits against firearm companies if they violate “industry standards of responsible conduct.”
Companies in the firearm business will be required to develop standards that include preventing sales to straw buyers, traffickers, anyone who is not legally allowed to own a firearm and anyone who the business has “reasonable cause” to believe is likely to use it unlawfully or to harm themself.
A business may also be held liable for marketing to minors or advertising in a way that promotes converting legal firearms into illegal firearms. The statute of limitations for lawsuits under the bill would be five years.
The bill also states that just because a third party chose to break the law while using a firearm or related product doesn’t mean the manufacturer can’t be sued for failing to act responsibly, as defined by the bill.
The federal Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act still protects gun manufacturers and dealers from liability stemming from crimes people commit with their products.
“We have a quite old law on the books in Colorado that gives pretty extraordinary immunity to one particular class of businesses that is not enjoyed by most other companies providing any other service or selling any other items,” Weissman said.
“The bill seeks to eliminate that and the bill instead seeks to provide some legal duties consistent with federal law, in the hopes that companies in the firearms industry will comply with those and keep Coloradans safer.”
Taylor Rhodes, executive director of Rocky Mountain Gun Owners, questioned the impact that the bill would have at a Colorado Senate committee meeting March 8, saying it would only serve to scare arms manufacturers and dealers out of selling firearms to responsible adults.
He likened suing a gun manufacturer after a shooting to suing a car manufacturer after a driver used their vehicle to target pedestrians.
“It simply makes no sense,” Rhodes warned. “Law-abiding Coloradoans have the right to access firearms, and this bill will severely limit that right.”
Weissman and Fields both brought up the case of Sandy and Lonnie Phillips, whose daughter, Jessica Ghawi, was killed in the Aurora movie theater shooting.
After the incident, the Phillips family tried to sue the companies that sold ammunition to the shooter, but when the case was dismissed, state law required the couple to pay the defendants more than $200,000 in legal fees, bankrupting the two. The new bill would repeal the section of state law which forced the couple into bankruptcy.
“I’m thinking about the Phillips family, and how they ended up having to sell their home,” Fields said. “I think it’s time that Colorado should repeal that law and make it necessary to protect victims in the future.”
Also, in spite of federal law, the son of one woman killed during the Boulder supermarket shooting in 2021 recently announced he is suing gun-maker Sturm, Ruger & Co. over its “reckless” and “immoral” marketing of the AR-556 pistol used in the massacre.
Investigators have not disclosed a possible motive for the shooting but said the suspect passed a background check to legally buy a Ruger AR-556 pistol six days before the incident.
In a similar lawsuit, gun-maker Remington settled with relatives of Sandy Hook school shooting victims for $73 million.
The families of nine victims, as well as a survivor, sued Remington, alleging the company targeted at-risk males in advertising and product placement in violent video games. One of Remington’s ads featured the Bushmaster rifle against a plain backdrop and the phrase: “Consider Your Man Card Reissued.”
The lawsuit against Sturm, Ruger & Co. claims the company’s marketing materials included similar phrases such as “Anything else would be un-American.”
“We believe they marketed it in a way that was meant to appeal to the militarization of young individuals, glorified lone shooters and, especially in the wake of the Sandy Hook shooting, we think they had a moral responsibility to do better,” plaintiff Nathaniel Getz told the Associated Press.
The bill passed the Senate on March 13 and was introduced in the House the next day.
Raising the minimum age to 21
Another Senate bill would make it illegal for anyone younger than 21 to possess a firearm outside of the context of classes, hunting, target shooting, competitions and serving in the military or in law enforcement.
Currently, there are no age-based restrictions on people between the ages of 18 and 20 buying a gun in Colorado. Anyone who is at least 18 years old when the bill is enacted would be grandfathered in.
A minor violating the law will be charged with a class 2 misdemeanor the first time and a class 5 felony the second and subsequent times. Illegally providing a gun to a minor is a class 4 felony.
Sullivan said that discussion of raising the minimum age began after the April 2019 incident where Florida teenager Sol Pais committed suicide after traveling to Colorado and buying a gun. Pais was reportedly fascinated with the Columbine attack, and school districts across the Front Range shut down while the search for Pais was ongoing out of fears that she had traveled to the state to attempt a copycat attack.
“In Florida, (Pais) wouldn’t have had the ability to buy a firearm because in Florida after the Parkland shooting a very red state, a very gun happy state, passed a law to raise the minimum age of all purchase of firearms to 21,” Sullivan said.
Fields brought up how past mass shooters — like the perpetrators of the shootings in Columbine and Uvalde — were minors and suggested the change would help prevent shootings.
“At some point, you have to think about the development and the maturity of handling and using a gun in the appropriate way,” Fields said. “I think that’s another way to save lives is by putting this age limit on it.”
Dr. Maya Haasz, a pediatric emergency medicine physician at Children’s Hospital Colorado who researches firearm injuries, said that she thinks the bill to raise the legal age for gun ownership would be an important step in helping to reduce gun injuries and death in young people.
According to a 2022 study from the hospital, from 2018 to 2021 firearm injuries have increased in Coloradans ages zero to 19, and are now the leading cause of death for children above newborn age.
A main component of Haasz’s work is limiting access to firearms for youth who are at risk of suicide. Suicide is usually a very impulsive act, especially attempts made by adolescents, she said.
“Having access to a very lethal means will increase your risk of completing suicide and dying by suicide,” she said.
The majority of people who survive a suicide attempt and go on to receive treatment do not go on to die by suicide, Haasz said. But having access to a firearm dramatically reduces the chance of surviving that attempt.
The hospital supported the safe storage law that Colorado passed in 2021, and Haasz said she thinks raising the age limit would be another important step.
“I don’t think there’s any single law that is going to solve the problem of firearm injuries in children but I think it’s an important part of a comprehensive package to help decrease access and decrease firearm injuries in kids,” she said.
Rhodes, meanwhile, argued that the law change would deny young mothers and other young adults the ability to defend themselves and would violate the protections afforded by the Second Amendment.
“A firearm in the hand of a trained individual proves to be the great equalizer, no matter age, size or sex,” he said. “We have a lawsuit drafted on this bill. If you do decide to pass it, we will sue.”
The Senate passed the bill on March 13, and it was introduced in the House the following day.
Closer to becoming law
Though legislators expressed excitement about making progress on gun control measures, they also acknowledged that there’s no one bill that will be able to put an end to gun deaths.
“It’s not one law that’s going to dramatically reduce gun violence is of itself, it really has to be a matrix of policies that work with each other to create safer communities,” Fenberg said.
He acknowledged that curbing gun violence will take work from both politicians and law enforcement.
“In a lot of ways it’s about easy access to firearms but it’s also about bigger picture things that need to happen, like additional help for those who are suffering from mental illness or who are involved in crime,” he said. I think law enforcement does need additional tools. They’ve told us that and that’s something that we’re having conversations with them about.”
Despite pushback from some corners, Fenberg said that the opposition to this slate of bills has not been as intense as it was in previous years that the state legislature attempted to pass gun control measures, such as in 2013 when people drove around the capitol honking their horns.
“We have not seen the opposition be as loud or as aggressive as we have in the past,” he said. “And I think in some ways that is a recognition of where our state is and our country is. You’re always going to have gun activists who oppose everything we do but I think the vast majority of Coloradans support these policies and want them in place.”
While Fields expressed optimism about the ability of the four bills to mitigate gun violence along with an upcoming bill of hers dealing with ghost guns, she also warned that the state would not be able to “legislate its way out of this problem.”
She said halting gun violence would be a community-wide effort, mentioning the responsibility of citizens to lock up their guns and report crimes to the police as well as the responsibility of the city to take care of its most vulnerable residents, dissuading them from crime.
“I believe laws like what we’re passing in the statehouse will help, but it’s bigger than that,” Fields said. “I shouldn’t be getting accustomed to hearing gunshots, like I live in Chicago or Baltimore. And I want to be safe in my home.”
— The Associated Press and Kaiser Health News contributed to this report.