Rocky Mountain Gun Owners group readies for legal fights as Democratic supermajority looks at reform

While Colorado Democrats promise an emphasis on gun laws unseen last year, a pro-gun group says it’s readying to thwart their efforts in court.

Colorado voters delivered the party historic majorities in the state Senate and House of Representatives this past November, with some key races being run on explicitly pro-gun control promises. A poll commissioned by Giffords, a gun control advocacy organization, likewise indicated gun violence was top of mind for many voters as they cast their ballots — and that was before the horror of the latest mass shooting in the state.

No legislation has been formally introduced, but members have been pitching general ideas: strengthening the extreme risk protection order law; wait times on purchases; age limits; outright bans on certain types of firearms. They’ve also formed a gun violence prevention caucus with more than 20 members.

In 2021 alone, more than 1,000 Coloradans died from gun violence, Senate President Steve Fenberg, a Democrat from Boulder, said Monday in remarks acknowledging the start of the legislative session.

“We owe it to each of those victims, and their families, to do more,” Fenberg said. “Yes, it’s a mental health issue. But it’s also an economic justice issue, and a public safety issue, and an education issue. And yes, it is also a gun issue.”

It could be the biggest swing at control measures since 2021’s spate of new gun laws, including allowing local regulation of firearms and the creation of the Office of Gun Violence Prevention, or 2019’s passage of the initial extreme risk protection order law.

State Rep. Meg Froelich, a Greenwood Village Democrat who co-founded the caucus, said the goal is to be intentional and strategic about gun law reforms — and take the burden off gun violence survivors and the families of victims from lobbying for changes. And while mass shootings draw national attention, she said the caucus also wants to curtail smaller-scale shootings and suicides.

“It’s not about cutting off access (to guns) completely,” Froelich said of the caucus’ goals. “We’re a Western state, and there’s a culture around outdoor activity and there’s plenty of responsible gun owners in Colorado. There are just these deadly combinations when we think access is just too easy.”

Taylor Rhodes, executive director of Rocky Mountain Gun Owners, sees those goals as infringements of constitutional rights. But he also notes the makeup of state government — a Democratic supermajority in the House, and a near supermajority in the Senate — and says gun rights advocates need to be “realistic” about what can be done in the Capitol.

“Our legal team is on notice and we are actively getting the lawsuit printers going,” he said. “They are warming up.”

Rocky Mountain Gun Owners, long a pugnacious force in Colorado politics when it comes to firearm policy, has an ongoing lawsuit against several local governments over their gun control laws. Superior, Louisville, Boulder and Boulder County all banned assault-style weapons, limited magazine capacity and instituted minimum ages for firearm possession.

In the lawsuit, the group’s lawyers call the term “assault weapon” a non-technical, “rhetorically charged political term” for certain semiautomatic weapons and instead refers to them as a “banned firearm.”

The recent U.S. Supreme Court decision in New York State Rifle & Pistol Association v. Bruen, which expanded gun rights in the country, gave gun rights advocates a “four-ton wrecking ball to go through and dismantle everything they’ve done,” Rhodes said.

“The court system is where we believe we can win,” he said. “As the legislature decides what they want to do, they do have to keep in consideration that we are going to sue them, and how much money do they want to cost the state on these lawsuits? Because at some point, it is going to become frivolous on their end.”

The group has eased up on election spending over the last decade after earning a reputation of primary challenges against Republicans deemed too flexible on gun rights — and blowback that it in turn promoted unelectable Republicans and hurt the party’s standing in the state.

Since the mid-2010s, Rocky Mountain Gun Owners’ state super PAC has dropped from spending more than $250,000 on state elections in 2014 to less than $12,000 in 2022, according to state records. In 2018, Democrats won trifecta control of state government and since cemented it.

The group’s tax filings show overall decreased — but steady — income from a high of more than $900,000 raised in 2013 to about $400,000 in 2020, the most recent year available, according to a ProPublica nonprofit database.

But that doesn’t mean the group has been quiet. State lobbying records show Rocky Mountain Gun Owners staked positions on more bills in 2020 through 2022 than any other three-year period since 2011 — demonstrating at the very least the group hasn’t left the Gold Dome. Rhodes said he plans to continue working the halls of the General Assembly, though he also acknowledges the likelihood of success there, and that he thinks the courts give the best shot of success.

State Sen. Tom Sullivan, a Centennial Democrat, brushed off the tactic as Rocky Mountain Gun Owners tacitly acknowledging they can’t win the debate for looser gun laws, so they must turn to the courts.

“(Voters are) giving a strong indication they want Democrats to do what Democrats are going to do on gun violence prevention,” Sullivan, who is also co-chair of the gun violence prevention caucus, said. “I think that’s what we should be doing. We should be having that conversation.”

Sullivan’s son was one of the dozen people killed in the 2012 Aurora movie theater shooting. When he was campaigning for the senate seat, constituents didn’t want to talk gas prices or the economy, he said. They knew his story and wanted to talk about stymieing gun violence. As gun violence continues — and mass shootings continue to happen in Colorado — it gets closer and closer to every person, he said.

He, like Froelich and Rhodes, acknowledged that the electorate’s position on guns has dramatically shifted since the successful recalls of two Democratic state senators, and the resignation of a third, over gun control laws in 2013.

According to a poll commissioned by Giffords and conducted by the highly regarded Global Strategy Group, 73% of voters this November considered gun violence an important factor in their decision. And of the 78% that cited crime more broadly as an important factor, two-thirds said shootings and mass shootings were among their more specific concerns — outstripping crimes like burglary, carjackings, and retail theft.

“Nationally, we’ve seen a huge shift in the politics of the issue,” Giffords Executive Director Peter Ambler said. “It’s gone from having this sort of third-rail reputation to being something that has significant bipartisan appeal. Colorado has been at the epicenter of that transformation.”

Rhodes said it’s impossible not to notice Colorado’s shift in politics over the past 20 years. He called Democrats’ push on gun laws pandering to their base and overall ineffectual, given the rise in gun violence in the state. But he also doesn’t see the fight as one of politics as much as a need to fight for the rights of law-abiding gun owners.

“They can do whatever the hell they want, but it likely isn’t going to hold up under Second Amendment muster,” he said.

State Sen. Paul Lundeen, the Republican leader in that chamber, likewise emphasized constitutional rights when it comes to the Democratic proposals.

“The Republican Senate caucus will always rise to the defense of the Consitution and Bill of Rights,” Lundeen said. “The details of legislation that may contradict the Bill of Rights will inform the details of opposition to those proposals.”

Froehlich noted that Rocky Mountain Gun Owners have a right to file suits and something she expects. Any legislation will be drafted with the Bruen decision in mind, she said.

As for Sullivan, he predicted that Democrats might be called “strong-handed” if they pass laws they hope will curtail gun violence without Republican or industry support. He hopes they’ll join the effort — and notes that car manufacturers have cooperated to bring down automotive deaths — but plans to highlight that unwillingness if they don’t.

Regardless, Sullivan plans to keep gun violence central to his service. In the House, he would end every Friday with a memorial to his son, Alex, and specifically, note how many Fridays have gone by without him — more than 500 now. He hopes to keep the practice up in the Senate.

“I’m there as a reminder,” Sullivan said. “I won’t let them forget.”

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