After recall elections that cost two Democrats their seats in the state legislature in 2013, gun control advocates were reeling.
The two legislators — Sen. John Morse and Rep. Angela Giron — had backed controversial gun-control laws in the wake of the Aurora theater shooting and Sandy Hook shooting. That support proved unpopular in their home districts and they were each voted out.
A third legislator — Sen. Evie Hudak — resigned her seat as petitions circulated for her recall.
In the wake of the recalls, advocates in Colorado weren’t sure what to do next, and worried further efforts to push gun safety measures would prove equally dicey for lawmakers who backed them.
But now, a few years and several more mass shootings after the recalls, that reticence is gone.
“We were still changing culturally, and it was very much the third rail of politics,” said Erin DaCosta, a volunteer leader with Moms Demand Action Colorado, an advocacy group pushing for tougher gun laws.
DaCosta said that while the recalls were devastating, the conversation around guns has changed, and she and other advocates on her side of the fence say they are confident gun control will not only be an issue in this election, but one that they can win on.
“People are fed up with the inaction of Congress,” she said.
With the November election just 11 months away, gun policy is shaping up to be a major debate topic — especially in Aurora’s 6th Congressional District — and advocates on both sides of the issue expect background checks to be a central piece of that.
DaCosta said extending background checks to all sales — including private sales and those at gun shows -— is not just a measure that could help reduce gun violence, but also one that has broad enough support that it could actually become law.
Last week, after he announced executive orders aimed at extending background checks to some sales that weren’t previously covered by them, President Barack Obama said he would campaign only for candidates who support those sorts of gun control measures.
DaCosta said that was a huge moment for the gun safety movement.
“The tide has changed, this has been a critical turning point,” she said.
Dave Hoover, whose nephew, A.J. Boik, was killed in the Aurora shooting, said background checks are a common sense starting point to battle gun violence.
A police officer and gun owner himself, Hoover said it’s hard for him to understand the opposition to background checks. The last time he got one, Hoover said it took about 15 minutes and during that time, he strolled around the store and found a few other items to buy.
Dave Kopel, research director at the Independence Institute, a libertarian-leaning nonprofit that backs gun rights, said the question of background checks isn’t quite so simple.
Kopel, who is the lawyer for more than 50 Colorado sheriffs who filed a lawsuit challenging the state’s enhanced background check law, said that in general, neither he nor his clients oppose background checks on gun sales.
But expanding the checks to all gun transfers, including letting a family member borrow a gun or even letting police return a stolen weapon to its rightful owner, is unworkable.
“When you make that the only way you can even borrow a gun, then you have to have a functional system that you can use,” he said.
Colorado’s current system, which requires sellers to go to a gun store for their background checks, is so unworkable that Kopel said it is actually driving people away from getting a background check.
Gun rights advocates have also pointed out that in many recent mass shootings, including Aurora and Sandy Hook, background checks wouldn’t have stopped the gunmen from getting the weapons they used.
Hoover said that argument misses the larger point about gun violence as a whole.
“It’s not just the mass shootings,” he said. “The loss of anyone’s life, any family member’s life, is horrible.”