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Opinion: Colorado lawmakers must act to end relentless cycle of mass shootings

December 8, 2022, 10:34 am
AR-15 assault rifle
This AR-15 assault rifle is banned in Vail (wiki commons photo). Colorado lawmakers should consider a statewide ban this coming legislative session.

The hate-motivated massacre in Colorado Springs last month changed the gun violence conversation in Colorado, and new gun measures will almost certainly be enacted during the legislative session that begins next month.

There was already a preference for more gun restrictions in the state, site of several of the country’s most notorious mass shootings, including a 2021 Boulder grocery store bloodbath, in the hometown of the governor.

Quentin Young

But the Nov. 19 shooting at Club Q, where a 22-year-old alleged assailant used an AR-15-style rifle to kill five people and injure 17, targeted members of the LGBTQ community, and the incident’s element of bigotry following a rise of anti-LGBTQ rhetoric on the right gives it a singular quality of horror that has already prompted a new gun violence prevention discussion.

Here’s what the Legislature and governor should do in the coming months.

Enact a gun-purchase waiting period. Some Democrats have long advocated this measure, and it’s time to get it done. It would likely reduce suicides in a state that ranks in the top 10 for such deaths. One of every 14 middle and high school students in Colorado has attempted suicide. In 2021 in Colorado, 740 people died by suicide using a firearm. The death of Sol Pais is often cited in connection with the proposed waiting period — in 2019 the 18-year-old Pais traveled from her native Florida to Colorado, bought a gun the same day and almost immediately ended her life.

Raise the minimum age to buy an assault weapon. Currently, as long as you’re 18 you can buy a rifle, like an AR-15-style assault weapon, in Colorado. (The minimum age to buy a handgun is 21.) Rep. Tom Sullivan of Centennial, a state senator-elect, whose son Alex died in the 2012 Aurora theater shooting, said during an August news conference that raising the minimum age to purchase assault rifles has been “the predominant conversation going across the country” and a priority for him at the General Assembly. 

Though some gun-rights advocates contort themselves defending these weapons — U.S. Rep. Ken “Kill ‘Em All” Buck of Windsor claimed this summer AR-15s are necessary to pick off raccoons on ranches — they’re weapons of war, designed to kill lots of people quickly, and they have no place in normal civilian life.

The Second Amendment might have made sense amid 18th century circumstances and technology, but now it’s so clearly a destructive influence in American society that repeal should be its immediate fate.

Better yet: The Legislature should outright ban assault weapons. An assault weapons ban was briefly discussed among some state lawmakers after the Boulder King Soopers shooting. But the proposal quickly disappeared — likely due to behind-the-scenes discouragement from the office of Gov. Jared Polis, according to some sources — and lawmakers have since refrained from mentioning it, or they’ve argued it’s a measure better instituted at the federal level, as when a national assault weapons ban was in effect from 1994 to 2004. A renewed national assault weapons ban is one of President Joe Biden‘s gun violence prevention priorities.

But the most recent slaughter altered the landscape. 

“I certainly think that’s come back into the conversation because of Club Q,” state Rep. Meg Froelich told Newsline this week.

A national assault weapons ban is preferable, but a state ban would contribute significantly to the wider movement against these death machines and help ratify the message that human life takes precedence over a nihilist conception of “freedom,” in addition to actual shootings it might prevent. Eight other states and the District of Columbia have already enacted some form of an assault weapons ban, according to Giffords Law Center

Expand Colorado’s red flag law. In 2019, the state enacted an extreme risk protection order — or “red flag” — law. It allows family members of a person deemed a risk or law enforcement to request a judge to confiscate the person’s guns. Some conservative Colorado sheriffs, including El Paso County Sheriff Bill Elder, opposed the measure and indicated they wouldn’t enforce it. Elder’s agency arrested the Club Q suspect last year after he threatened to become “the next mass killer” and engaged in an armed standoff with law enforcement. Charges were later dropped for unknown reasons, and Elder has declined to comment on the incident. But records indicate it never prompted a red flag petition, even though the case appears to be a textbook example of how red flag laws can prevent a tragedy.

Lawmakers should expand the categories of people who can petition a judge for a red flag action. In addition to family members and law enforcement, district attorneys, certain health care professionals and potentially other professionals such as teachers should be allowed to file a red flag petition. Lawmakers should also adjust the law to require certain officials, such as a sheriff, to file a red flag petition if there’s credible evidence of sufficient threat. New York state adopted such a requirement this year after a mass shooting in Buffalo.

The scale of America’s gun violence crisis is so profound that real solutions will take generational patience and perseverance. The Second Amendment might have made sense amid 18th century circumstances and technology, but now it’s so clearly a destructive influence in American society that repeal should be its immediate fate, even if that outcome in reality is impossible.

Much of the amendment’s malignancy derives from a twisted interpretation of it by gun zealots in positions of power, notably at the U.S. Supreme Court. The court’s pro-gun ruling in New York State Rifle and Pistol Association v. Bruen this year, for example, has helped empower Rocky Mountain Gun Owners to bring legal challenges against local and state gun violence prevention measures in Colorado.

Americans who are justifiably aghast that they can’t go to school, church or the grocery store without fear of being randomly blown away should engage in the long and hard — but not impossible — work of ridding elective offices and the judiciary of anyone who clings to death-wish positions on gun rights.

In the meantime, Colorado lawmakers can achieve incremental advances on gun violence prevention next year. Democrats have sizable majorities in both legislative chambers and a Democrat in the governor’s office. There will be no excuse for failure, even if success will only be another step on the long path toward gun sanity in this country.

Editor’s note: This opinion column first appeared on Colorado Newsline, which is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Colorado Newsline maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Quentin Young for questions: info@coloradonewsline.com. Follow Colorado Newsline on Facebook and Twitter.

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