DENVER – Colorado’s governor signed four gun control bills Friday, following the lead of other states struggling to confront a nationwide surge in violent crime and mass shootings, despite a recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling that expanded Second Amendment rights.
Before the ink was even dry on Gov. Jared Polis' signature, gun rights groups sued to reverse two of the measures: raising the buying age for any gun from 18 to 21, and establishing a three-day waiting period between the purchase and receipt of a gun. The courts are already weighing lawsuits over such restrictions in other states.
The new laws, which Democrats pushed through despite late-night filibusters from Republicans, are aimed at quelling rising suicides and youth violence, preventing mass shootings, and opening avenues for gun violence victims to sue the long-protected firearm industry. They were enacted just five months after a mass shooting at an LGBTQ club in Colorado Springs.
“Coloradoans deserve to be safe in our communities, in our schools, in our grocery stores, in our nightclubs,” Polis said as he signed the measures in his office. The governor was flanked by activists wearing red shirts reading, “Moms Demand Action," students from a Denver high school recently affected by a shooting, and parents of a woman killed in the Aurora theater shooting in 2012.
Supportive lawmakers and citizens alike had tears in their eyes and roared their applause as Polis signed each bill. Colorado has a history of notorious mass shootings, reaching back to the Columbine High School massacre in 1999.
Republicans decried the bills as onerous encroachments on Second Amendment rights that would impede Colorado residents’ ability to defend themselves amid a rising statewide crime rate. Gun rights advocates pledged to reverse the measures.
“It’s a sad day for Colorado; we are becoming one of the most anti-Second Amendment states in the nation,” said Rep. Mike Lynch, the Republican minority leader.
A third measure passed by the legislature will strengthen the state’s red flag law, and a fourth rolls back some legal protections for the firearm industry, exposing them to lawsuits from the victims of gun violence.
Lynch anticipates that the magnitude of the gun restrictions — along with other bills Democrats pushed this year — will incite a backlash in the next election, especially in swing districts that helped reinforce Democrats' majority in the legislature.
The new red flag law, also called an extreme risk protection order, empowers those working closely with youth and adults — doctors, mental health professionals, and teachers — to petition a judge to temporarily remove someone’s firearm. Previously, petition power was limited mainly to law-enforcement and family members. The goal is to act preemptively before someone attempts suicide or attacks others.
At the signing ceremony, Senate President Steve Fenberg, a Democrat and one of the bill's sponsors, said Republicans and other gun control opponents often respond to mass shootings by saying it's too soon to talk about restricting firearms.
"It isn’t too soon. It’s too late for so many of the lost souls," Fenberg said. “We needed to have done more to prevent what happened.”
Republicans argued that the law would discourage people — especially military veterans — from candidly speaking with medical doctors and mental health professionals for fear of having their weapons temporarily seized.
Lynch argued that while the shooting in Colorado Springs was often held up as a reason to pass these types of gun restrictions, “evidence shows they would’ve done absolutely nothing to stop that.”
“It kind of breaks my heart that we’re taking these tragic events ... and we’re using those events to promote an agenda that doesn’t fix the problem,” he said.
The law requiring a three-day delay between buying and receiving a firearm — an attempt to curtail impulsive violence and suicide attempts — puts Colorado in line with nine other states, including California, Florida and Hawaii.
Colorado has the sixth-highest suicide rate in the country, with nearly 1,400 in 2021, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. A RAND Corporation analysis of four studies found that waiting periods are linked to lower suicide-by-gun deaths.
Opponents raised concerns that people who need to defend themselves — such as victims of domestic violence — may not be able to get a gun in time to do so.
In raising the minimum age to purchase a firearm from 18 to 21, Colorado joins California, Delaware, Florida, Hawaii, New York and Rhode Island. Proponents point to now oft-cited data from the CDC showing that gun violence has overtaken vehicle accidents as the leading cause of death for children and teenagers in recent years.
At the ceremony, Colorado Attorney General Phil Weiser likened the new laws to the campaign for vehicle safety that spawned groups such as Mothers Against Drunk Driving, the forerunner of Moms Demand Action.
But Taylor Rhodes, executive director of Rocky Mountain Gun Owners, the group that filed the lawsuits, had a different perspective.
“This is simply bigoted politicians doing what bigoted politicians do: discriminating against an age,” said Rhodes, referring to the new minimum age for gun purchases.
In their speeches about rolling back legal protections for gun manufacturers, lawmakers looked often to Sandy and Lonnie Phillips, whose daughter, Jessica Ghawi, was slain in the 2012 Aurora theater shooting. The parents tried to sue the companies that had sold the shooter ammunition and tear gas but were unsuccessful. Ultimately, the couple ended up owing more than $200,000 in defense attorney fees and had to file for bankruptcy.
California, Delaware, New Jersey and New York have passed similar legislation over the past three years. Opponents of the bill argued that it would merely bog the firearms industry down in bogus lawsuits.