Massacre-hardened Colorado a gun control test case
DENVER (AP) — After the annual late-summer harvest on his farm in the eastern reaches of Colorado, Greg Brophy has a few friends over, breaks out the handguns and semi-automatic rifles and mows down some rotten watermelons.
The Republican state senator's melon shoot is a fixture on the political calendar in his rural district near the Nebraska border and a window into the culture of gun ownership in a state that cherishes its frontier heritage.
One of the worst and most high-profile school massacres in American history — the 1999 Columbine shooting that killed 12 students and a teacher — did little to alter that culture. In fact, it is now easier to carry a concealed handgun in the state than it was before Columbine.
Now, six months since a deadly movie theater rampage in suburban Denver, there's a new drive to restrict guns, fueled by the Connecticut school shooting. And Brophy and other gun rights backers worry the push may bear fruit because of state's demographic changes.
In recent decades, Democrats have done increasingly well as young coastal transplants flocked to Denver and its suburbs. The traditionally red state helped elect Barack Obama president in 2008 and chose him again in November, when the party won back the legislature.
Those suburban voters are "further removed from their rural roots," Brophy said. "I think they (Democrats) will overplay their hands and it will cost them, but over the past few election cycles, they've been right and I've been wrong."
Meanwhile, gun control activists worry that the momentum they believe they have after the Newtown, Conn., massacre will fade just as it did after the Columbine killings — without enough of the kind of laws they believe have any chance to reduce gun violence.
On Thursday, Gov. John Hickenlooper in his state of the state speech called for universal background checks on all gun sales and a broader discussion about firearms regulations. Referencing the Aurora shooting and Columbine, Hickenlooper, a Democrat, said: "We have shown in Colorado that we can learn from tragedy and make changes."
The previous day, Democrats opened the latest legislative session as about 100 worried gun rights activists quietly marched outside to protest the still-unwritten gun control measures.
Republican lawmakers introduced a bill to allow school employees with concealed weapons permits to carry firearms at work, while a three-day hearing on the theater shooting wrapped up in a suburban courthouse with survivors talking about the need for more gun control.
As the state and the nation debates gun violence, the worries and hopes expressed on both sides are not that different today than they were after Columbine.
At the time, the government was controlled by the GOP, and the Republican legislature was putting its finishing touches on a bill to make it easier to obtain a permit to carry a concealed handgun. The bill was dropped after the attack.
The state's then-governor, a Republican, beefed up background checks of gun purchases. The Legislature barred "straw purchases" of guns by a legal buyer on behalf of minors. An 18-year-old had purchased the guns used by the Columbine killers at a gun show.
Voters overwhelmingly passed a ballot measure closing a loophole that allowed some gun show buyers to evade background checks.
That marked the end of Colorado's foray into gun restrictions.
By 2003, however, the Republican legislature began expanding gun access. It prevented towns and counties from passing certain types of gun restrictions and resurrected and finally passed its liberalization of concealed carry.
The gun control advocates were horrified. To them, it was a cautionary tale about the gun lobby's power. "Mostly what we've done on the gun issue is, we've been playing defense," said Tom Mauser, whose son Daniel was killed at Columbine.
To their opponents, the state was a model of how not to over-react to the tragedies. "We want fewer guns in the hands of people who shouldn't have them and we want more guns in the hands of people who should," said Dave Kopel at the libertarian Independence Institute.
Kopel said he considered the expansion of concealed carry one of the state's greatest post-Columbine achievements. "It's the one that made all the difference in the world," he said, "because Jeanne Assam was lawfully carrying."
Assam, a former police officer, was working as a volunteer security guard at a Sunday evening service at a Colorado Springs mega-church in 2007 when a 24-year-old man began firing at churchgoers in the parking lot, killing two people and wounding three.
Assam shot him with her 9 mm Beretta. An autopsy found he shot himself.
By then, Democrats had won back control of the statehouse and governor's mansion. They did not pursue new gun control initiatives. A lot of Coloradans thought, "well, we've taken care of that," gun control activist Ted Pascoe said.
And then, early on July 20, state Rep. Rhonda Fields was called by a constituent who worked near the Century Aurora 16 movie theater. The caller said there was a new massacre in her district — 12 people dead at a midnight screening of "The Dark Knight Returns."
Fields had joined the Legislature after her son, Javad Marshall-Fields, and his fiance were shot to death in 2005 to stop him from testifying at a murder trial.
Long a lonely voice for gun restrictions at the capitol, Fields was shocked that, even after the Aurora shooting, few joined her. Hickenlooper said he didn't know if restrictions on guns would have stopped the massacre.
"It does surprise me, and it saddens me as well," Fields said. "I'm sick and tired of this. I think enough is enough."
Four months later, Obama won Colorado by more than five points and Democrats recaptured the lower house of the Legislature. On Dec. 12, Hickenlooper said enough time had passed since Aurora that he'd now be open to discussing gun control measures.
Two days later, 24-year-old Adam Lanza went on his rampage, killing his mother and then killing 20 children and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School.
On Dec. 22, Fields and Aurora's state senator held an emotional news conference at the state capitol, flanked by tearful survivors of the theater shooting.
Theresa Hoover, whose 18-year-old son AJ Boik was among those killed, urged lawmakers to limit guns. She said it was a conversation Colorado "should've started years ago, and it's shame on us for letting it get this far."
If the state had done something earlier, Hoover said, sobbing, "You guys wouldn't even know who I was. And I would rather have it be that way."