Colorado's ban on large-capacity gun magazines, enacted after the 2012 Aurora movie theater massacre, is constitutional, the state Supreme Court ruled Monday.
"You should see the big old smile right now on my face," Sen. Rhonda Fields, D-Aurora, said upon hearing of the court's decision. Fields was a state representative at the time when she sponsored the measure. "This ruling confirms that what we did in the state of Colorado was necessary, it was needed and it was appropriate."
House Bill 1224 banned the sale, transfer and possession of magazines designed or converted to hold more than 15 rounds of ammunition. Those who violated the law would be guilty of a misdemeanor, with a fine and up to 18 months in prison as a penalty. Anyone who committed a felony or violent crime while possessing the magazine would be guilty of a felony. The measure contained a grandfather provision for people who owned such magazines before July 1, 2013, and kept them continuously in their possession. There are exceptions for sale of the weaponry to out-of-state and government entities.
The bill passed on a vote of 18-17 in the Senate and 34-30 in the House of Representatives.
Rocky Mountain Gun Owners, which describes itself as Colorado’s “largest, no-compromise gun organization,” sued then-Gov. John Hickenlooper shortly after the bill’s signing. The group alleged HB1224 violated section 13 of Colorado’s bill of rights, which provides that “[t]he right of no person to keep and bear arms in defense of his home, person and property, or in aid of the civil power when thereto legally summoned, shall be called in question.” Other plaintiffs included the National Association for Gun Rights and John A. Sternberg.
A Denver District Court judge summarily dismissed the gun group’s lawsuit, saying it failed to describe the relief it was seeking. A 2016 panel of the Colorado Court of Appeals reversed the decision.
Writing for the majority, Judge John Daniel Dailey noted the plaintiffs were not challenging HB1224’s constitutionality under the Second Amendment. Therefore, the Colorado Supreme Court’s standard for evaluating the law was whether it constituted a “reasonable exercise of the state’s police power.”
A subsequent trial led the district court to conclude that HB1224 "was not only based on a valid, reasonable safety concern, [but] the limit is, itself, reasonable and does not impose on the constitutionally protected right to keep and bear arms for self-defense or defense of home or property." The judge added that the law would limit casualties in mass shootings.
The court found that between 1967 and 2016, large-capacity magazines were used in 50% of shootings that killed at least six people, and that states without such a ban experienced three times as many mass shootings as those with a prohibition. Another Colorado Court of Appeals panel upheld the ruling, concluding there was no infringement on the right to self-defense, and the law would force shooters to take more pauses, thus saving lives.
In writing for the Supreme Court on Monday, Márquez rejected Rocky Mountain Gun Owners' contention that the convertible-magazine provision would outlaw many types of firearms, finding that the law only covered such magazines "designed to be readily converted" for additional ammunition.
Dudley Brown, the group's executive director, said in a statement Monday the Supreme Court, with its narrow reading of the convertible magazine provision, "protected virtually all removable base plate magazines, which could have criminalized hundreds of thousands of gun owners.” The group vowed to continue its efforts to repeal the large-capacity magazine ban in the legislature.
HB1224 had its origins in one of the highest-profile massacres at the time. On July 20, 2012, a gunman murdered 12 people at a midnight screening of “The Dark Knight Rises” in Aurora's Century 16 movie theater. Through use of a large-capacity magazine, he fired 65 rounds in 40 seconds, according to court records. In addition to the deaths, 70 other people were injured. For each victim killed, he received a life sentence in prison. The judge in the trial, Carlos A. Samour, Jr., is now a member of the Supreme Court.
In the legislative session after the shooting, the General Assembly passed three gun safety measures: a bill requiring universal background checks, generally covering the private transfer of firearms; a bill establishing a surcharge to cover the cost of background checks; and HB1224, banning large-capacity magazines. The gun owners' group also sued over the background check measure, but lower courts dismissed the claim and the Supreme Court did not consider the bill in its decision.
The measures sparked Colorado’s first state legislative recalls against the Democrats in charge of the Senate and resulted in the ouster of Senate President John Morse, D-Colorado Springs, and Sen. Angela Giron, D-Pueblo. Sen. Evie Hudak, D-Westminster, resigned in order to halt the recall effort in her district.
Morse, after the ruling, applauded the Supreme Court for arriving at the same conclusion the General Assembly's majority reached in passing the law seven years ago.
"My biggest regret from 2013 is that we didn't do more because I didn't realize that it was going to take seven more years after 2013 to make additional progress on gun safety measures to keep our children safe," Morse said, referring to the implementation of extreme risk protection orders on Jan. 1 as the most recent regulatory measure.
Adams County Commissioner Mary Hodge, who also sponsored HB1224 as a senator, said Monday that while she understood gun legislation is always contentious, "I thought it was a small step in a larger effort to protect people in a 'shooter situation' by giving some small space for evasion without denying anyone a Second Amendment right."
The case is Rocky Mountain Gun Owners v. Polis.