Colorado House committee approves first round of gun control measures

Greg Campbell | Contributor

Colorado lawmakers continued their full court press to make sweeping changes to gun laws late Tuesday night, moving a pair of contentious bills out of a house committee along strict party line votes.

The measures require background checks for every gun sale in the state and restrict ammunition magazines to those that hold no more than 15 rounds. Debate on the bills lasted for nearly 10 hours and drew a standing room only crowd of 300-400 people, most of them opposed to the proposals.

The debate took place against the backdrop of President Obama demanding that Congress vote on substantive gun reform during his State of the Union address, as well as a dramatic shoot-out in California between police and a heavily armed man believed to be fugitive ex-cop Chris Dorner in Big Bear.

Colorado’s determination to tighten the screws on gun laws has made it the new front line in the longstanding clash between those who want to introduce new checks on firearms purchases and those who see such moves as a erosion of constitutional rights.

“I think ultimately the goal is (firearms) registration,” said Robert Eskenberry, a representative of a group of gun rights advocates called Oath Keepers who have vowed to uphold the constitution. Eskenberry was asked to leave the committee room because his T-shirt, which featured the oath printed on the back, was deemed too political by the Chief Sergeant at Arms.

Other opponents, including Washington, D.C.-based National Rifle Association lobbyist Daniel Carey, questioned whether the bills would have any effect on violent crime and called the background check requirement both unconstitutional and “an unjust burden on the citizens of Colorado.”

Democratic Rep. Rhonda Fields, who sponsored both bills, said the Aurora theater shootings were the driving factor behind the proposed legislation, just as the Columbine shootings in 1999 led to a citizen initiative to require background checks at gun shows, which until then were not required.

That law, Amendment 22, passed by 70 percent of the vote. Supporters of universal background checks pointed to polls showing equally overwhelming public support to extend the background check requirement to private transactions, which Fields said account for 40 percent of all gun sales in the state.

Victims of gun violence, members of law enforcement and representatives of the hunting community all spoke in favor of the bill.

“As law enforcement, we regularly see the consequences of this loophole,” said Greenwood Village Police Chief John Jackson, representing the Colorado Association of Police Chiefs, which voted unanimously to support the bill. “This is a matter of public safety.”

But opponents argued that extending background checks won’t prevent future mass shootings by people determined to get a weapon.

“Criminals do not obey the law,” Carey said, “and they’re not going to go through a background check.”

Aurora was also behind Fields’ ban on high-capacity magazines, like the 100-round drum magazine that jammed on alleged shooter James Holmes. Prosecutors have said that if the drum magazine had functioned properly, the death toll of the theater shooting would have been higher than 12.

Originally, the bill to outlaw such magazines capped the number of rounds at 10, but committee members amended it to allow for 15-round magazines in an attempt to strike a balance between public safety and the need for self-defense. Again, the question was raised as to how effective this ban will be to prevent violent crime since there’s no limit on the number of 15-round magazines a person can possess or carry.

Committee members also wanted to reword the bill to clearly exempt from prosecution Colorado companies that make 30-round magazines and sell them to NATO allies and private gun manufacturers.

Democrats control both chambers of the state legislature and Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper has said he supports both universal background checks and ammunition limits.

The debate will start anew on Wednesday when another pair of gun bills is introduced. These will require gun buyers to pay for background checks and ban concealed carry firearms on college campuses.

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