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Bill banning purchase, sale and transfer of so-called assault weapons in Colorado clears its first hurdle

A similar measure was rejected in its first committee hearing in the Colorado legislature last year. And House Bill 1292 still faces a steep hill toward becoming law.

Photo from DCF Guns website

By Jesse Paul

12:23 AM MDT on Mar 20, 2024

The Colorado Sun

A bill that would ban the purchase, sale and transfer of a broad swath of semi-automatic firearms, defined in the measure as assault weapons, cleared its first hurdle at the Colorado Capitol just after midnight Wednesday.

That’s already further in the legislative process than a similar piece of legislation made it last year. 

The Colorado House Judiciary Committee advanced House BIll 1292 on a 7-3, party-line vote to the full House. (Rep. Marc Snyder, a Manitou Springs Democrat who sits on the House Judiciary Committee, was excused.)

The vote came after 12-plus hours of emotional and heated testimony from opponents and proponents of the bill that began on Tuesday morning. Hundreds of people signed up to share their opinions and experiences with the panel. 

House Bill 1292 faces an uncertain future in the legislature, despite the Capitol being controlled by Democrats. Even if it passes the House, the General Assembly’s more liberal chamber, it may face defeat in the Senate, where it doesn’t even have a prime sponsor yet, a requirement.

“I think it’s still going to be challenging to get a bill like that passed in the Senate right now,” Senate President Steve Fenberg, a Boulder Democrat who supports an assault weapons ban, told reporters in February. 

And even if it passes the Senate, the measure will be sent to the desk of a skeptical Gov. Jared Polis. 

State Rep. Elisabeth Epps, a Denver Democrat and one of the lead sponsors of the bill, acknowledged that political uncertainty Tuesday as she introduced the measure to the House Judiciary Committee.

“Coloradans want to be able to go to school, go to work, get gas — live their lives — without the omnipresent and very real, palpable threat of preventable gun violence permeating our every step,” she said. “What is unknown is whether or not this is the year when we as a body will, without reservation, choose to prioritize saving lives over saving seats.”

By seats, Epps meant lawmakers’ seats in the Capitol. Specifically, those held by fellow Democrats. 

In 2013, two Democratic senators were recalled and a third resigned in response to their support for a package of gun control measures passed in the wake of the Sandy Hook elementary school massacre and the Aurora theater shooting the year before. 

And while it’s true that some Democrats in the legislature now are fearful of similar political backlash if House Bill 1292 passes, others simply think the policy won’t be effective on the state level. 

State Sen. Tom Sullivan, a Centennial Democrat whose son was murdered in the Aurora theater shooting, is one of the state’s most fervent gun regulation advocates. But he believes the state doesn’t have enough resources to enforce limitations on so-called assault weapons. He favors a federal approach. 

House Bill 1292 defines an assault weapons as: 

  • A semi-automatic rifle capable of accepting a detachable magazine or of being modified to accept a detachable magazine that also has a pistol grip, muzzle brake, functional grenade or flare launcher, shroud attached to the barrel, threaded barrel, or a folding, telescoping or detachable stock. One or more of those secondary features would make the pistol be defined as an assault weapon under the bill.

  • A semi-automatic pistol that’s capable of accepting a detachable magazine or is capable of being modified to accept a detachable magazine that also has a threaded barrel, second pistol grip, shroud attached to the barrel, a muzzle brake or an arm brace. One or more of those secondary features would make the pistol be defined as an assault weapon under the bill.

  • A semi-automatic shotgun that either has a pistol grip, fixed large-capacity magazine, or a folding telescoping or thumbhole stock. One or more of those secondary features would make the shotgun be defined as an assault weapon under the bill.

  • A .50-caliber rifle

The bill also defines a long list of specific makes and models of firearms as being assault weapons, including AK-47s, AR-15s, TEC-9s, Beretta Cx4 Storms, Sig Sauer SG550s, MAC-10s, and Derya MK-12s.

Possession of such firearms would still be allowed under the bill, but people would be prohibited from importing them into Colorado.

The prohibition wouldn’t apply to members of the military or law enforcement. It also wouldn’t apply when a so-called assault weapon is being transferred to a licensed firearms dealer for temporary storage or permanent disposal, or being transferred to a gunsmith for maintenance or repair. Transferring a so-called assault weapon to an heir would also be allowed.

Violators of the statute would be committing a petty offense, which carries a sentence of up to 10 days in jail and/or a fine of up to $300. A petty offense is the lowest level criminal offense in Colorado. 

Originally, the bill would have imposed a fine of $250,000 for a first offense and a $500,000 fine for subsequent offenses, though there were no criminal consequences. The change was made through one of a handful of amendments to the measure adopted by the House Judiciary Committee.

The measure would also ban the possession of rapid-fire trigger activators, which can make a semi-automatic gun fire at a rate similar to an automatic firearm.

Rocky Mountain Gun Owners, a hard-line gun rights organization, has vowed to file a lawsuit to invalidate House Bill 1292 should it pass. The group held a rally outside the Colorado Capitol on Tuesday opposing the measure.

Polis has expressed skepticism about the legality of an assault weapons ban, especially in light of the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2022 decision to unwind a New York law requiring a license to carry concealed weapons in public places made it more difficult for states to pass gun control measures. 

In that case, New York State Rifle and Pistol Association v. Bruen, the court set a precedent that if a gun statute regulates something that is protected under the plain text of the Second Amendment, then “the government must affirmatively prove that its firearms regulation is part of the historical tradition” for it to be constitutional. 

It was under that standard that Colorado’s new law raising the age to purchase all guns to 21 was indefinitely blocked by a federal judge last year. RMGO filed the lawsuit challenging the measure.

“A lot of the whole discussion around gun safety is now under the framework of the Bruen decision,” Polis told The Colorado Sun in September when asked if he would sign an assault weapons bill if it made it to his desk. “Even our increasing the age limit (law) is not enforced right now. We have not yet even succeeded in being able to raise the age limit to 21.”

But Rep. Tim Hernández, a Denver Democrat and another lead sponsor of House Bill 1292, said he worked closely with the Colorado Attorney General’s Office in drafting the measure to make sure it holds up to legal scrutiny.

“This will stand up in court,” he told the House Judiciary Committee on Tuesday. “Since Bruen, states have continued to pass similar assault weapons bans to the one in front of you today.”

House Bill 1292 is among a list of measures that would tighten Colorado’s gun regulations that are being considered by the legislature this year. The others include: 

  • House Bill 1174, which would change Colorado’s requirements to obtain a concealed carry permit to include completing a course that includes a live-fire shooting exercise. The lead sponsors of the bill are Democratic Reps. Monica Duran, of Wheat Ridge, and Snyder, as well as Democratic Sen. Kyle Mullica of Thornton. The bill passed the House and is awaiting its first hearing in the Senate.

  • Senate Bill 131, which would expand the places where the open or concealed carry of firearms is prohibited, including to parks, hospitals, religious buildings, stadiums, amusement parks, government buildings, libraries and college campuses. The lead sponsors of the measure are Democratic Sens. Sonya Jaquez Lewis, of Longmont, and Chris Kolker, of Centennial, as well as Democratic Reps. Kyle Brown, of Louisville, and Mandy Lindsay, of Aurora. Its first hearing in the Senate Judiciary Committee is scheduled for Wednesday.

  • Senate Bill 3, which would authorize the Colorado Bureau of Investigation to investigate illegal firearms activity on a statewide basis. The measure is sponsored by three Democrats: Sen. Sullivan, Reps. Meg Froelich of Englewood and Duran, the House majority leader. The measure passed out of the Senate last week. 

  • House Bill 1270, which would require gun owners to obtain liability insurance or, if they can’t secure the insurance, to petition a court to waive the requirement. It would also require insurance companies to make firearm liability insurance available as part of homeowners and renter’s insurance policies, though they wouldn’t be required to offer the coverage to someone they feel is too risky. The measure is sponsored by Democratic Reps. Steve Woodrow, of Denver, and Iman Jodeh, of Aurora, as well as Denver Democratic Sen. Chris Hansen. The bill was assigned to the House Business Affairs and Labor Committee but hasn’t been scheduled for a hearing yet.

  • House Bill 1348, which would require that guns left in unattended vehicles be stored in locked, hard-sided containers — excluding glove boxes. The measure’s lead sponsors are Democratic Reps. Elizabeth Velasco of Glenwood Springs and Lorena Garcia of Adams County, along with Sens. Jaquez Lewis and Rhonda Fields of Aurora. The House Judiciary Committee advanced the bill earlier this month to the House floor, where it awaits debate.

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