The House on Friday advanced a bill seeking to tighten background checks on firearms sales, the first of a trio of bills introduced in the aftermath of the mass shooting in Boulder to be eligible for a final vote in one of the chambers of the state legislature.
House Bill 1298 would change state law on background checks for firearms transfers as well as close what’s known as the Charleston loophole. That’s a reference to the 2015 shooting at the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, S.C., which resulted in the murders of nine Black parishioners. The shooter obtained a firearm without a background check, because under South Carolina law — which is Colorado's, too — if a background check doesn’t come back within three days the dealer can transfer the firearm to the buyer without it.
Under the bill, those with convictions for violent misdemeanors will not be able to buy a gun for five years after the conviction. The suspect in the Boulder King Soopers shootings had been convicted of third-degree assault, a misdemeanor, three years before he purchased the firearm, according to witness testimony.
Bill sponsor Rep. Judy Amabile, a Boulder Democrat whose district includes the King Soopers, in opening debate on the bill recalled driving back the scene of the mass shooting after finishing legislative work that day to find what she said felt like a war zone.
“There were police officers and emergency personnel armed with all manner of weapons and tactical gear, drones were flying overhead,” she said. “But even with all that power, they could not stop the lone bad guy with a gun.”
According to Amabile, by the time the shooter reached the grocery store in her district, it was already too late to stop him.
“The time to deal with a young man who had a history of violent behavior, including a conviction for third-degree misdemeanor assault, was not when he was led out of the store bleeding and in handcuffs, it was before he walked into that gun store and legally purchased a firearm,” she said.
Rep. Steven Woodrow, a Denver Democrat who, along with Amabile, is a prime sponsor of the bill, pointed to an argument often raised by his Republican colleagues.
“We've listened, and one of the things that we've heard repeatedly is that guns don't kill people, people kill people,” he said. “If we accept for the sake of the argument that the issue, or at least a large part of it, pertains to people, then one solution is to do all we can to ensure that the people who've shown a propensity to commit acts of criminal violence have limited access to these weapons.”
That argument did little for Republicans, who ran nine amendments over the course of the four-and-a-half-hour debate on the bill seeking to roll back its provisions.
A bulk of the GOP objections centered on the section of the bill seeking to remove a three-day waiting period to ensure those who are seeking to buy a gun clear a background check first.
Several Republican lawmakers noted their firsthand experience with gun purchases often stretched beyond three days. According to Rep. Perry Will, R-New Castle, that’s because federally licensed firearm dealers are required to take back possession of a gun if they transfer it after the waiting period but the background check subsequently comes back failed.
Will’s colleagues, meanwhile, stressed the need for a time period in statute.
“Whether it is the additional number of folks that are purchasing guns that are causing now an increased volume of background checks that need to be made or difficulty with the software in checking the federal database, there needs to be a time period in statute,” said Rep. Terri Carver, R-Colorado Springs. “This bill basically eliminates that and I think that is hugely problematic.”
She pointed to domestic violence survivors who may be seeking a gun for self-defense and worried the lack of a timeframe for returning a background check could delay their ability to protect themselves. Republicans ran several amendments aimed at that situation, all of which were rejected.
Meanwhile, Rep. Kim Ransom said the removal of the waiting period would “reward the inefficiency of government.”
“If they take too long to do a background check, then what we're saying is that then we can infringe on people's rights even further because we are being inefficient with doing a background check,” the Littleton Republican said. A handful of GOP amendments to that end were also rejected.
One GOP amendment from Rep. Dave Williams of Colorado Springs was approved by the chamber though. That changed the bill to ensure the five-year waiting period after committing a misdemeanor did not apply retroactively.
“The hour's getting late and it must be very cold out when I agree with Rep. Williams,” Woodrow said, drawing laughter from the chamber. “Ex post facto laws are important and it was never the intent of the bill to go back and punish things that happened in the past.”
The bill is now up eligible for a final vote in the House. It also needs to clear the legislative process in the Senate.