Colorado assault weapons bill faces major change before tough vote

The Denver lawmaker sponsoring a proposed ban on the sale or purchase of assault weapons in Colorado floated a significant scaleback of the bill Wednesday morning — a move that acknowledged the uncertainty of an impending committee vote.

But Rep. Elisabeth Epps said a failure to enact a ban would show that the state’s historic Democratic majorities aren’t serious about the policy.

In a lengthy opening statement to the House Judiciary Committee, the Democratic lawmaker told her colleagues that she was contemplating an amendment that would limit the bill — HB23-1230 — to a ban on bump stocks. Those devices, which allow semi-automatic firearms to be fired continuously, were banned during the Trump administration, but a federal appellate court struck down the prohibition in January.

While the U.S. Justice Department appeals that ruling and the ban remains in effect, Epps told the committee that a bump stock ban in Colorado would provide more assurance in the state.

Still, Epps said she’d view an amendment neutering the bill as a loss, given support among Democratic voters for its original intent and the grim drumbeat of mass shootings featuring semi-automatic rifles in Colorado and across America. The current version of the legislation would prohibit the sale, purchase or transfer of a defined set of weapons with specific characteristics; it would cover AR-15-style semi-automatic rifles that often have been used in recent massacres.

As the committee settled in Wednesday for 12 hours of testimony before an expected vote on whether to advance the bill to the full House, Epps said she didn’t believe there was a path to get the bill out of committee “intact.” She plans to decide whether to bring her bump-stock amendment while public testimony unfolds.

Any amendments to the bill — from her or other committee members — would come at the end of that testimony, which is set to last into the evening.

Though Democrats have a 9-4 majority on the committee, House members, including Democrats, have said for weeks that they doubt the measure, as written, would pass to the full chamber.

Committee member and Democratic Rep. Said Sharbini told The Denver Post earlier this month that he didn’t support the bill. Rep. Bob Marshall, another Democrat on the committee, previously declined to comment on his position, and Rep. Marc Snyder, a Colorado Springs Democrat, said he had concerns about the bill’s constitutionality.

Epps said she wanted to follow through on a promise to constituents to have lawmakers put votes on the record for issues like this. The bill’s introductory language lists recent mass shootings committed by men wielding assault weapons. It includes Colorado’s own grim tally of tragedies, such as one at an Aurora movie theater in 2012 and another at a Boulder grocery story in 2021.

“Folks have been asking us to do this for a long time,” Epps told the committee. “That framing is my way of telling you that while it would sadden me, I’m not scared of y’all voting no. I’m scared of us not trying.”

The measure has been among the most contentious debated at the legislature this session, even within the historically large Democratic majorities in the General Assembly. Republican opposition is uniform, and several pro-gun advocates who spoke at the beginning of Wednesday’s hearing promised to file lawsuits should the bill pass.

The bill’s language was released by a pro-gun group in January without the sponsors’ approval, and its introduction was repeatedly delayed, to Epps’ frustration. An initial co-sponsor on the bill, Fort Collins Rep. Andy Boesenecker, removed his name from the legislation before it was finally introduced in early March — a sign of internal divisions among Democratic members and leadership about how the bill should proceed.

Leadership has instead coalesced around a package of other gun-reform bills that the legislature largely has passed.

Epps referred to those dynamics during her opening comments and questioned why the bill would die in a chamber where Democrats have a supermajority. She urged listeners to “primary each and every last one of us if we don’t get it done.”

“I’ve long said Democrats aren’t serious about a statewide ban of assault weapons. If we fail, I was right,” Epps said. ” I want to be wrong. I want to be wrong today — if not today, then next year … before the next event that forces us to consider this.”

The committee’s vice chair, Denver Democratic Rep. Jennifer Bacon, said she was grateful that Epps filed the bill. She called the debate over whether to ban assault weapons “the conversation of our generation.”

Denver District Attorney Beth McCann, who testified in support of the bill, described the impact on victims’ bodies of bullets fired by high-powered firearms. She said it was “beyond comprehension we can’t agree on this.”

Throughout the session, as the General Assembly has debated and passed several other gun bills, students repeatedly have gathered at the State Capitol to demand action in the wake of recent shootings at and near Denver East High School and mass shootings elsewhere in the country.

Republican lawmakers have opposed the entirety of Democrats’ gun reform bills. They criticized the assault weapons bill Wednesday as the committee began hearing public testimony.

Rep. Stephanie Luck, a Colorado Springs Republican, questioned the frequency of assault weapons’ use in mass shootings. She asked Adam Shore, of Colorado Ceasefire, who testified in support of the measure, about an increase in youths carrying knives in Australia. That country enacted broad gun control policies nearly 30 years ago and confiscated hundreds of thousands of firearms.

Shore replied that knives are less effective in mass shootings than assault weapons.

Representatives of pro-gun groups promised to sue “before the ink is dry,” should the bill become law. Gun store owner Jake Veith told the committee that the bill was the “most hateful, uneducated, uninformed” measure he’d read.

Other opponents, including several elected county sheriffs, said handguns were more commonly used in gun violence and said the gun violence crisis instead required more law enforcement and more mental health support.

The General Assembly has already passed much of the legislation rolled out as part of a gun safety package in late February. Those bills, which largely were clustered together as they worked through the Capitol, included age limits and waiting periods; expanded the state’s red-flag law; and made it easier to sue gun manufacturers.

Another bill proposing regulation of ghost guns was introduced in mid-April.

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