Colorado gun bills shot down

Casualty: The NRA's campaign falls victim to outrage over the shooting rampage at a suburban Denver high school, where the death toll included 12 students, a teacher and two assailants.

April 25, 1999

DENVER -- Gun advocates were training their sights on this Western city, hoping to weaken local gun control laws and reaffirm the National Rifle Association's influence in statehouses across the country after an embarrassing defeat in a recent Missouri referendum.

The thrust in Colorado came at a delicate moment for the gun industry, as legal challenges such as the lawsuit filed by Chicago multiply and politicians seek support for a crackdown on gun makers.

In Colorado, legislation was proposed that would have required sheriffs to issue concealed-weapon permits to almost anyone 21 or older who has undergone training and isn't a felon; to ban cities from suing gun makers; and to pre-empt local gun control ordinances that are stricter than state regulations.

The proposed legislation sparked a fierce debate in the Statehouse and across the state, but the NRA and its backers clearly had momentum until Tuesday's shooting rampage at Columbine High School in Littleton, a Denver suburb.

Now all three bills are dead. On Wednesday, the concealed-carry bill and the bill to pre-empt local gun restrictions were pulled by their sponsors, and Gov. Bill Owens vowed to veto the bill banning cities from suing gun makers, which had passed both houses of the legislature.

Local government leaders had criticized the proposed legislation, especially the concealed-carry measure, which passed the state Senate.

A House panel had planned to take up the measure on Wednesday, but legislative leaders decided to postpone action.

Then the sponsor of the concealed-carry bill went a step farther.

"I'm pulling it," said House Majority Leader Doug Dean.

That means his measure will die when the legislature adjourns May 5.

The decision by Dean, an NRA member, came a day after he said the school shootings might have been offset if a faculty member or an administrator had been armed.

"I would feel safer knowing that there was a teacher at my kid's school who was a concealed-weapons permit holder who could intervene in a situation like this," said Dean, a Republican from Colorado Springs.

But another Republican legislator, state Rep. Russell George, said he had received calls expressing the opposite view.

"I'm getting e-mails from people saying, 'See what happens when you have guns? And you legislators are talking about allowing more guns in society, and here's the harm that comes,'" he said.

On Tuesday, Owens, who had generally supported this year's gun legislation, told the Denver Post that it was not appropriate to talk about the gun legislation in light of the tragedy. But he did note that the shooters were not obeying gun laws.

"These killers broke every gun law in the books," Owens said.

Before the shootings, a spokesman for Owens said that the governor would have signed a concealed-carry bill if it restricted guns from schools and public buildings, required safeguards such as training and background checks, and was paired with the pre-emption bill.

Under the Senate version of the bill, people wouldn't have been allowed to carry their handguns on school grounds or into schools, government buildings or bars.

State Rep. Gary McPherson, sponsor of a separate bill to let a Colorado law override local ordinances on gun control, also withdrew his bill Wednesday.

McPherson said his bill "had nothing to do" with the tragedy at Columbine High School, adding: "But this is an emotionally charged debate, and in deference to the families, this is not the time to have the debate."

Meanwhile, U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno said Wednesday that stricter gun control laws were only part of the solution to school violence. Speaking on ABC's "Good Morning America," Reno said schools, churches, parents and community groups must work together to respond sooner to signs of troubled teen-agers and help them resolve their anger before they resort to deadly force.

"There is no one answer" that will end shootings and killings at U.S. schools, said Reno. "We've got to get guns out of the hands of young people. We've got to make sure they have the counseling, the support to help them come to grips with the anger of their life when it occurs."

NRA's aggressive agenda

The NRA's push in Colorado was in response to what it increasingly perceives as a state of siege over guns. The NRA is pushing an aggressive agenda in more than 20 states where it commands loyalty and influence -- including Colorado, in which the NRA's intense lobbying this year has surprised many groups involved in gun control issues.

A victory in Colorado would have had important symbolic significance for the NRA. The West, along with the South, is generally a stronghold for the association, and its annual convention was scheduled to open in Denver on April 30. More than 22,000 conventioneers were expected to attend, but the hoopla was scaled back because of the shooting spree. On Thursday, the NRA announced plans to hold a meeting of members on May 1.

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