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Gun control case study: A mass shooting, major reforms, then a political backlash

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Image: Barb Whitfield and her grandson, Wanya Whitfield, visit a memorial t
Barb Whitfield and her grandson, Wanya Whitfield, visit a memorial to the victims of a movie theater shooting in Aurora, Colorado, on July 22, 2012. -
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Former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper bills himself as the experienced, consensus-building Democrat in the 2020 presidential race, one who has successfully tackled divisive issues like gun control.

But his signature achievement as governor — a package of gun bills passed in 2013 — was undertaken without any Republican support and exacted great political cost on state Democrats, several of whom were recalled or resigned under threat of being removed from office. Hickenlooper has since expressed serious misgivings about how he handled the issue, publicly pondering whether it was worth it and apologizing to one of the key players in the process — although he still touts it on the campaign trail as one of his major accomplishments.

It began on July 12, 2012, when James Holmes opened fire inside an Aurora, Colo., movie theater, killing 12 people and injuring 70 others. During the attack at a midnight showing of a "The Dark Knight Rises," Holmes, who experts testified during his trial was mentally ill,wielded a modified semiautomatic AR-15 rifle, a 12-gauge shotgun and a .40-caliber semiautomatic pistol. He bought all the firearms legally.

Afterward, local and national gun-control groups, lawmakers and mental health advocates banded together to push tough gun control laws in a purple state where gun rights enjoyed significant support.

Their efforts were successful. After vigorous debate — and protests from pro-gun groups and gun-owning Coloradans — Hickenlooper signed three bills into law in 2013.

One, a so-called "high-capacity magazine ban," limited ammunition magazines to 15 rounds. A second put in place universal background checks for all gun purchases, expanding the checks to sales and transfers between private parties and to online purchases. The third measure required gun purchasers to pay for the background checks.

All three bills passed the state Senate and state House either entirely along party lines or with just one Democrat joining all Republicans in opposition. Four other bills, including an assault weapons ban, did not advance.

Republican opponents of the measures argued they infringed onSecond Amendment rights and that state Democrats were doing the bidding of national gun control groups (which poured hundreds of thousands of dollars into the state during the process) and the Obama White House, which at the time was advocating for national gun control legislation in the aftermath of Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in Newtown, Conn., in 2012.

The political price to be paid

The Republican and gun group-led backlash came fast and furious.

Incensed with the new laws, the National Rifle Association, Rocky Mountain Gun Owners and other groups helped organize angry residents to gather enough signatures to force recall elections in the districts of two key Senate Democrats who had supported the gun control legislation.

Senate President John Morse, a former police officer representing a Colorado Springs-area district who had become a face of the bills, and Angela Giron, who represented a Pueblo-area district, were targeted.

Groups on both sides of the fight spent upwards of $3.5 million. Outside organizations were particularly aggressive: Mayors Against Illegal Guns, run by then-New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, spent $350,000 to help fight the recalls, while the NRA poured in $360,000 to support them.

Morse and Giron both lost their seats, and under the way the recall was structured, Republican replacements were elected on the same ballot, cutting the Democrats' majority in the state Senate to one seat.

Then, seeking a GOP takeover of the chamber, the same groups collected enough signatures in October to recall Democratic state Sen. Evie Hudak, who represented the northwest suburbs of Denver. Rather than face a recall,Hudak resigned — a move that, under Colorado state law, made sure the seat would stay in Democratic hands.

A year later, Colorado Democrats — still facing intense criticism over the gun reforms — lost control of the state Senate, along with several state House seats, and a U.S. Senate seat. Hickenlooper, however, won re-election.

'AN INTERESTING TEST'

In interviews with NBC News, key players in the fight to pass the bills and defeat the recalls made it clear they were relentless in their efforts to make good on Hickenlooper's desired approach to engage those who opposed the proposals as part of the process. When they were stonewalled, they said the governor decided to take action anyway — a risk they knew would likely have enormous political costs for themselves but that was still worthwhile.

"We did everything we could to work across the aisle. There just wasn't any way to do it," Morse said in an interview. He recalled a meeting with several GOP state senators in which they told him, "There is nothing to even talk about."

Barb Whitfield and her grandson, Wanya Whitfield, visit a memorial to the victims of a movie theater shooting in Aurora, Colorado, on July 22, 2012.
Barb Whitfield and her grandson, Wanya Whitfield, visit a memorial to the victims of a movie theater shooting in Aurora, Colorado, on July 22, 2012.Chip Somodevilla

"There are plenty of times where you cannot make a deal with the devil and other times where you have no business making a deal with the devil," Morse said. "This turned out to be both."

Added Hudak, "There was no bringing people together on the gun issues...There was no compromising with them."

The NRA declined to comment. Rocky Mountain Gun Owners did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

Tony Fabian, the president of the Colorado State Shooting Association — another group that fought the bills and supported the recalls — said Hickenlooper "didn't engage with us at all." If he had, Fabian said, "nothing short of vetoing" the legislation would have been satisfactory.

"These were gun control bills. These weren't bills that could be fixed. These were bills that directly attacked the constitutional right to bear arms," added Fabian.

Roxane White, who served as Hickenlooper's chief of staff throughout the gun control debate and recalls, said they spent "endless hours" with Republican legislators, corrections officers, families affected by gun violence and gun groups on both sides of the debate.

"I suppose in retrospect we wish we'd had even more conversations and dialogue," she told NBC News. "But minus a 26-hour day, I don't know if I think it would ever be possible. That said, we didn't anticipate the ferocity of the recalls that ensued."

Hickenlooper later expressed dismay at the divisions the bills caused, and even hinted that he may not have gone through with signing the legislation if he'd foreseen the consequences.

"If we'd known it was going to divide the state so intensely, I think we probably would've thought about it twice," he told a conference of the County Sheriffs of Colorado in June 2014.

He also apologized for not meeting with the group, which had opposed the bills, during the debate, and said he only signed the high-capacity magazine ban because a staffer had promised state lawmakers he would.

The saga offers clues on what could happen with a Democratic president who — if given a Democratic-controlled House and Senate in 2020 — might attempt federal gun control legislation using a similar model: By first trying to incorporate all interests and, when that fails, going it alone and risking the fallout.

A spokeswoman for the Hickenlooper campaign said she believes that voters looking at the former governor's record would understand "getting things done" can mean "making tough decisions" that have political fallout.

"When you're a doer," Lauren Hitt, the campaign communications director, told NBC News, "sometimes you get things done the way you exactly wanted to do at the beginning, and other times you get them done whatever way they can get done."

Others, however, predicted national Democrats — after massive failures on the issue following Sandy Hook — would never stake so much political capital on gun control, especially when considering what happened in Colorado.

"Colorado being a purple state, this was all kind of an interesting test," said Doug Friednash, who followed White as Hickenlooper's chief of staff as governor. "What comes into play on a national level is that people in vulnerable seats have to think twice before they take that on. That's one of the primary reasons DC hasn't had an appetite to take gun control on."

"Having a governor who has done it in a swing state is still a good thing. But does it mean he, or someone else for that matter, could walk in and build consensus?" Friednash asked. "It would take a lot of time. It's a very challenging path."