Not everything is all blue and roses down at the state Capitol this year.
Despite the blue wave that washed Republicans out of power in the legislature and every statewide office in Colorado, gun-rights laws are back.
This year has already seen a bill that would make it easier for concealed weapon permit holders to take their weapons onto school grounds. There’s a bill to repeal the state’s magazine limit and bill to make it legal for employees and managers to shoot people they feel threatened by.
Experts and even bill proponents agree the measures don’t have a chance.
The Sentinel asks why, then, do bills like these regularly surface at the Capitol, and especially why this year, when the party in power is working to move gun control legislation in the opposite direction.
GO AHEAD, MAKE MY DAY
A Republican state representative from Colorado Springs wants to give Colorado workers the chance to channel their best Clint Eastwood.
State Rep. Shane Sandridge, R-Colorado Springs, introduced a bill on the opening day of the 2019 legislative session that would expand the state’s so-called “make my day” law to include owners, managers and employees of Colorado businesses.
Colorado was one of the first states to pass so-called “make my day” legislation, which grants homeowners legal authority to kill intruders they think may harm them, in the mid 1980s.
Sandridge’s measure would allow workers to use “deadly physical force” against anyone who enters a business uninvited, has committed or might commit a crime, and “might use any physical force, no matter how slight” against other workers, according to the proposal.
The measure would also exonerate employees from any criminal or civil prosecution after potentially killing an intruder.
The current “make my day” law has been used sporadically in recent years, including in an Adams County case in 2016, according to a summary of the law published in the Denver Post two years ago.
George Brauchler, district attorney for the 18th judicial district, expressed skepticism toward the bill, saying the measure’s shortcomings are threefold: self-defense statutes are already in place to protect business owners and patrons, the current proposal wouldn’t protect customers and it considerably lowers the threshold for using lethal force.
“Even in the absence of this law, store owners and employees and customers have an absolute right to defend themselves in a place of business — that is not limited by any other law that I’m aware of,” he said. “What this bill seeks to do is to lower the bar for when you can engage in force against another person.”
Brauchler said he would be hesitant to expand the current “make my day” statute using Sandridge’s language.
“‘Make my day’ is a pretty powerful tool,” he said. “So to expand it this way…this one just, to me, with the way it’s currently drafted, I don’t think this fits Colorado.”
Regarding the current “make my day” law, Brauchler said the defense comes up often, but is seldom applicable. Still, he said his office recently used the statute as a rationale to not prosecute a man who accidentally shot his wife in Castle Rock. Thinking his wife was an intruder, the man shot her in the couple’s home. The wife survived and both the man and woman asked prosecutors not to file charges. Brauchler’s attorneys heeded their requests.
While the new “make my day” bill faces improbable odds of passing out committee, it underscores a conservative platform that local members of the GOP don’t want forgotten during the Democrats’ current political Cerberus, with control of the governor’s office and both chambers of the state assembly.
The measure has been assigned to the State, Military and Veterans Affairs Committee, often colloquially referred to as the “kill committee.”
Sandridge, the bill’s lone sponsor, did not respond to multiple requests for comment. A spokeswoman for the Colorado House Republican caucus did not respond to a request for comment by press deadline.
Sandridge, who holds a Ph.D in criminology according to a report published in the Colorado Springs Gazette-Telegraph, was nominated to his House District 14 seat last January, after the former lawmaker from the El Paso County district, Dan Nordberg, took a position in the U.S. Small Business Administration. A former Kansas City Police Officer, Sandridge was re-elected to his Colorado Springs district by more than 30 percentage points in November.
Bills like Sandridge’s — often introduced at the very start of the session — are common political salvos intended to draw attention and satisfy constituents, according to Seth Masket, a professor of political science and director of the Center on American Politics at the University of Denver.
“This can be a way of saying to people who put the author of the bill in office: ’This is an issue I care about, I know you (constituents) care about it, and I want to try to force a vote on this,’” Masket said. “And ‘just because my party’s not in power, I’m not going to sit quietly.’”
Masket pointed to repeated attempts by Democratic U.S. Rep. Diana DeGette to introduce stem cell legislation, and recent efforts from U.S. House Democrats to introduce articles of impeachment against President Donald Trump as national examples of symbolic bills.
Masket said messaging bills like Sandridge’s can be particularly effective in Colorado due to a state constitutional amendment intended to boost political transparency passed more than two decades ago.
“We have the GAVEL procedures here that make it more likely than in most legislatures that most pieces of legislation will get some sort of attention,” he said.
Nearly three-quarters of Coloradans approved the “Give A Vote To Every Legislator” amendment in the 1988 general election, ending a longstanding system that typically saw the majority party choke the policy agenda of the minority — a practice that continues today in almost every state legislature across the country.
The procedural tweak requiring every piece of legislation to go to a committee has made the state a unique political test tube, according to political scientists Mike Binder, Vladimir Kogan and Thad Kousser.
“The initiative accomplished its more narrow legislative aim of opening up Colorado government to a broader range of proposals,” Binder, Kogan and Kousser wrote in a chapter describing the history of GAVEL in the 2011 book “State of Change: Colorado Politics in the Twenty-First Century.” “Many of those proposals may die, but they now do so with a public vote.”
And in a state with two-year terms for officials elected to the state House, Masket said members often use GAVEL to snag headlines they can later use as rhetorical ammunition when running for re-election.
“It’s an unusually open legislature,” he said. “But you only have a few years to draw some attention to yourself and tell your constituency you’re doing something.”
— QUINCY SNOWDON, Staff Writer
GUNS IN SCHOOLS
GOP Rep. Patrick Neville, a survivor of the Columbine High School shooting, is bringing back a bill that removes limitations on who is able to carry a concealed handgun on public school campuses across the state.
Essentially, if passed, anybody who is permitted to carry a concealed handgun could do so on a school campus. He and a spokesperson for House Republicans refused to comment on the bill. It failed last year in a Democrat-controlled House policy committee.
The same outcome is expected this year, nevertheless Laura Carno said it’s important to let residents know there are still people fighting for these policies. Carno is the executive director of FASTER Colorado, which trains educators and school staff who are permitted by school districts to have a gun on the job.
“It’s one of those things that when you’re not in the majority, you know exactly what’s going to happen,” she said. “Some legislators feel it’s important to put those out there, even though they know the outcome, so their constituents know they’re fighting for their rights.”
On this particular policy, Carno insisted it’s parent-driven.
“Parents go to their school… and say ‘I demand that my children be as safe as possible,” she said. “If cops are two minutes away, what does that mean for my kid? If they’re 15 minutes away, what does that mean?”
David Kopel, research director at the Independence Institute, said a similar law in Utah hasn’t raised any issues for teachers or students there. He added that many teachers in Colorado already have permission to carry handguns in school through contracts with school leadership. Under this bill, specific contracts allowing gun possession in schools would no longer be necessary.
FASTER Colorado is set to release schedules for trainings in the coming weeks, but Carno said the demand for training is increasing since its debut just a few years ago. She said the organization, funded by donations through the Independence Institute, the Denver-based conservative think tank, is already working with three Colorado school districts this year and is having to add training classes.
Carno worked to help unseat two southern Colorado lawmakers in 2013 for their votes on pro-gun control legislation that limited the magazine limit to 15 bullets.
So far it’s unclear if a 2013-repeat is in the near future, but Carno said there’s still a chill left over from that recall.
“2013 was a caution for a lot of legislators,” she said, saying that it seems fewer Democrats ran on a gun policy platform in recent years. “Democrat legislators are rightly asking the question, ‘Will it cause some backlash that I don’t want to face?’”
Both districts where those state legislators were recalled have returned to being represented by Democrats. Senate President Leroy Garcia, being one of them.
— KARA MASON, Staff Writer
MAGAZINE LIMIT REPEAL
The ban on so-called high capacity magazines holding more than 15 bullets was a centerpiece of Democrats’ gun control efforts in the 2013 legislative session, following 2012 mass shootings in Aurora and Newtown, Conn.
The 2013 law banned the possession, sale or transfer of any magazines able to hold over 15 rounds. Since then, state Republicans have regularly introduced attempts to repeal the ban. So far, those efforts have proven to be unfruitful.
Republican representatives Lori Saine of Firestone, and Stephen Humphrey of Severance, introduced the latest attempt on the legislature’s opening day. It was promptly assigned to the State, Veterans & Military Affairs committee, often coloquially called the “kill committee.”
Neither representative responded to requests for comment.
Eileen McCarron, a volunteer with gun-control group Colorado Ceasefire, said her group helped pass the magazine ban in 2013. She said the law was especially motivated by the Aurora theater shooting in 2012, when a gunman opened fire with weapons including a semi-automatic rifle with a 100-round magazine, killing 12.
“High-capacity magazines are what put the mass in mass shootings, because they don’t have to stop and reload,” she said. “They can shoot off a number of bullets very rapidly, and there have been cases where the shooter was stopped attempting to reload.”
McCarron cited the 2011 shooting of Arizona Congresswoman Gabby Giffords and nineteen others. In that instance, the shooter fired all 31 bullets in his magazine and was ultimately subdued when he paused to reload, according to news reports.
Kopel, a Independence Institute researcher, said he expected all three gun-related bills to die swift deaths in the Democratic-controlled legislature, but that the magazine ban is too limited. Kopel led the charge in a 2013 lawsuit against the law that failed, but he said he’s testified for similar bills in the past. He said the limitation of 15 bullets in a magazine bans standard magazines that often carry 16 or 17 rounds.
The bills are usually accompanied by counterparts in the Senate, which have not be introduced at press time. Aurora Senator Rhonda Fields, a Democrat, said the bills will have a fair hearing in either chamber – which they are entitled to have – but she hopes the bills won’t move forward.
“For me, I think that we should be looking forward and not backwards,” Fields said. “The State of Colorado has set the trend – we have done things in our state that other states have not done, and even things that have not been done on the federal level.”
— GRANT STRINGER, Staff Writer