Sen. John Hickenlooper, then the governor of Colorado, arrived in Aurora the morning of July 20, 2012, to review the scene of the theater shooting where 12 people had been murdered hours earlier. He remembers vividly the video police took of the theater and debris.
“There was popcorn everywhere. You could see blood on the seats. And there were no people, which somehow made it more chilling,” he recalls a decade later.
In the days after the shooting, Hickenlooper, along with then-Aurora Mayor Steve Hogan and former President Barack Obama, made it a priority to meet with and visit the survivors and the families of the dead.
Then, as so often it goes, the conversation turned to legislation.
The theater shooting was a catalyst for lawmakers to act on gun violence, though they were met with vehement pushback at nearly every turn. Along with the safety threats — Democratic Party Chairperson Morgan Carroll, who was a state senator representing Aurora at the time, received nine credible threats the following legislative session — opponents also warned they’d end political careers.
In 2013, opponents of gun control legislation made good on their promise to recall sitting lawmakers who signed onto bills that limited gun magazines to 15 rounds and required universal background checks on gun sales. Sen. Angela Giron and Senate President John Morse, both Democrats from Southern Colorado, were recalled after an influx of cash and campaigning from the gun lobby. Later, Democratic Sen. Evie Houdak resigned her seat.
For years after, state Democratic leaders say, those recall efforts had a chilling effect on tackling gun legislation, even if polling showed they had public opinion on their side and friendly donors, such as Michael Bloomberg, were willing to step in and help.
“If the entire community were really voting on this, I don’t actually think those folks would have been recalled. But because the state statute was designed so that you can recall for any reason or no reason at all, and the math that triggers a recall is at an irregular time, with no real campaign apparatus to drive voter turnout, you have an intense minority of people that were able to overthrow the will of the majority of voters, by, in my opinion, abusing the recall process,” Carroll said.
In the end, there were questions about whether the recalls really came down to opinions on gun laws, but it didn’t stop Democrats from tapping the brakes on gun legislation.
“The general assembly, like any organization, has a personality. It’s the aggregate personality of all the people in the Senate and House and when they see two pretty good senators taken out in a recall, I think that makes everybody a little more cautious,” Hickenlooper said.
Giffords, a pro-gun control advocacy group, says by some measures Colorado has made significant progress on passing laws believed to prevent dangerous shootings. Universal background checks, extreme risk protection orders, domestic violence gun laws, a child access prevention law and extended background check periods are all counted among what the state “does well.”
“I think that Colorado has done a lot and we know that states with strong gun laws have fewer gun deaths than states with weak gun laws,” said Allison Anderman, Senior Counsel and Director of Local Policy at Giffords.
Still, the state saw gun purchases spike in the last two years, non-fatal shootings rose 136% between 2019 and 2021 in Aurora, and a handful of mass shootings happened across the state since 2013, including last year at a Boulder grocery store where a 21-year-old gunman killed 10 people.
“Colorado has done a better job… but that still doesn’t diminish the fact that we’re seeing more shootings, more mass shootings, every year,” Hickenlooper said. “I think that (there is a) culture of violence. There’s so many guns in the systems, and even if we stopped any gun purchases tomorrow, even then there is this culture of violence. Other countries have the same mental health challenges and issues and cycles of the economy that create ways of anxiety for their citizens, but they don’t have these shootings.”
Hickenlooper was himself the target of criticism in his own party as being a hold up for legislation. In the days after the shooting, Hickenlooper said on CNN that he was skeptical any laws would have stopped the shooter in Aurora.
“If it was not one weapon, it would have been another, and he was diabolical,” he said.
Rep. Tom Sullivan, whose son Alex was killed in the Aurora theater shooting, said even today he runs into opposition in his party on gun legislation. He was elected as a Democrat in 2018, running unabashedly on gun safety legislation.
“Two out of the four years I’ve been in the House, we weren’t even allowed to run gun legislation,” he said. “I’ve had heated conversations with the last two speakers of the Colorado House as to why bills aren’t put up. These aren’t even monumental (bills)…. This is like, lost and stolen firearms, raising the minimum age of buying an assault rifle. It’s been 22 years since Columbine and we don’t even have a definition of assault rifle.”
This legislative session, Democrats considered running a measure raising the age from 18 to 21 to buy an assault-style rifle, but a bill never materialized.
That frustration is echoed on the federal level, as many advocates and voters say a recent package of gun bills agreed upon in the House and Senate still doesn’t go far enough. President Joe Biden signed the legislation into law earlier this month. The bills strengthen background checks for young gun buyers, encourage states to enact red flag laws and include $13 billion to bolster mental health programs.
Looking back at the last decade, Sullivan wonders if Democrats would have had an easier time and be less hesitant today if they’d taken a different approach a decade ago.
“What if in 2013 they had just done two bills? Would we not have had two senators recalled and one resigned? Would we not have continued to have the Democratic Party in fear of having a day-to-day conversation of prevention because of how it’s going to impact their caucus?” he said.
So many people have been touched by gun violence now, Sullivan said he wants Coloradans to look at the legislature and know that work on the issue is happening at the Capitol, just like transportation or education. Even if a bill doesn’t pass on the first try.
“I can learn from that,” he said. “But I’m running out of time.”
Despite the frustration, Sullivan is confident that the laws passed in Colorado have made a difference.
“The pendulum has swung back and we have saved lives because of the work that has happened over the last 10 years. I can tell you people are alive because of that work,” he said. “Certainly not enough, and we will continue to work on that. But parents are tucking in kids who they might not in all probability if we had been doing nothing.”
Giffords says Colorado still misses the mark on gun owner licensing, assault weapon restrictions, waiting periods, concealed carry laws and open carry regulations, but it’s hard to say whether the hill ahead of Democrats is steeper than the last.
“Some of these proposals poll well,” Anderman, with Giffords, said. “So why state politicians aren’t introducing or moving them is really a question for them.”