Colo. shooting adds factor to debate over gun control

NRA national convention is scheduled to open next week in Denver

Colorado School Shooting

April 21, 1999|By Joe Mathews | Joe Mathews,SUN STAFF

Even before yesterday, Colorado was expected to take center stage this month in the bitter, building national drama over the future of gun manufacturing and regulation. But when two young men in trench coats shot up Columbine High School at 11: 30 a.m., the controversy arrived in force -- two weeks early.

The National Rifle Association is set to open its 128th annual convention April 30 in Denver. For the past several days, billboards with pictures of NRA President Charlton Heston have lined several major roads in Colorado, including Interstate 25, on the way from downtown to Littleton.

An NRA-backed bill intended to ease restrictions on concealed weapons is expected to be debated by the Colorado House of Representatives today. Its odds for passage had been viewed as good.

With municipalities across the country launching an unprecedented wave of litigation against firearms makers, the NRA convention had been touted as the most closely watched gathering of the 2.7 million-member organization in recent memory.

But yesterday, in the wake of the shootings in a suburb of Denver, advocates on both sides of the debate were privately predicting that next week's convention could turn into the most bitter confrontation yet on the issue.

Gun control supporters -- in the Denver area and nationwide -- were making plans yesterday to descend on the Colorado Convention Center during the three-day NRA meeting.

NRA officials declined to comment for the record but said privately that they expected a record turnout at the membership meeting on the conference's second day, May 1, to show strength in the face of the inevitable post-shooting criticism.

"The fact that this has happened in Colorado is horribly ironic," said Naomi Paiss, a spokeswoman for Handgun Control Inc. in Washington, two hours after yesterday's shootings.

"This raises the ante," added Joshua Horwitz, executive director of the Educational Fund to End Handgun Violence. "I suspect we're going to think about going out to Denver."

Colorado has been the focus of national attention in gun circles for weeks.

The state legislature, pushed by a new Republican governor, has been pursuing a package of three bills designed to ease access to guns and to reduce the abilities of cities and towns to regulate firearms. Already, the state has no minimum age for the ownership of rifles and shotguns. Residents must be 18 to own a handgun.

The NRA has put its prestige on the line by stationing one of its top lobbyists in Colorado to shepherd the bills to passage.

"For better or worse, this legislature has been obsessed with the gun issue for the last month and a half," says Sam Mamet, associate director of the Colorado Municipal League, which represents 263 cities and towns in the state. "All that's been on the front page of the paper is guns, guns, guns."

Already, one bill has passed: legislation that would prohibit Colorado's municipalities from suing gun manufacturers. In recent months, New Orleans, Chicago, Atlanta, Cleveland, Miami-Dade County and Bridgeport, Conn., have filed suit against firearms makers in an effort to recover costs related to gun violence.

But in Colorado, conservative legislators from both parties decided to prevent Denver's Democratic mayor, Wellington Webb, from bringing a suit of his own. The bill is on the desk of Gov. Bill Owens, who is expected to sign it.

Prospects for the two other bills were considered strong before yesterday. Key sponsors -- including state Sen. Gigi Dennis and Rep. Doug Dean -- declined to discuss the legislation yesterday.

Receiving the most attention nationally is a bill to ease local restrictions on the right to carry concealed guns. Colorado's Senate has adopted the measure, part of a nationwide effort to promote concealed-carry laws.

Originally, the concealed weapons bill would have permitted citizens with permits to have guns in schools. But at the governor's insistence, exemptions prohibiting guns in schools, government buildings, bars or athletic arenas have been added.

James J. Baker, executive director of the NRA's Institute for Legislative Action, has been calling on states to adopt bills allowing concealed weapons, to "send a message that the people can indeed be trusted."

Colorado legislators said that, in recent days, the most hotly debated of the three measures has been House Bill 1305, which threatens local gun-control laws passed after a series of high-profile gang shootings in 1993. Webb, the Denver mayor, says the laws have helped to reduce the homicide rate in Denver by nearly half.

The bill would reserve to the state the right to regulate handguns, overturning some existing laws. Among the threatened measures are local bans on assault weapons and the transport of guns in cars.

"Maybe the shootings will change the picture, maybe not -- people are already putting their different spins on this," says Mamet of the municipal league. "But I think it's safe to say that for the next few weeks, the national focus is going to be on Colorado."

Pub Date: 4/21/99

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