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.
"This is simply bigoted politicians doing what bigoted politicians do: discriminating against an age,” said Taylor Rhodes, executive director of the Rocky Mountain Gun Owners, referring to the new age limit on gun purchases. Rhodes said he has confidence in the lawsuits that his group has filed.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Colorado's bill repeals the state's 2000 law, which broadly kept firearm companies from being held liable for violence perpetrated with their products. While the industry is still largely shielded from liability under federal law, the rules make it easier for victims of gun violence to lodge suits.
Last year, for example, Remington, the company that made the rifle used in the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre, settled a lawsuit filed by the families of those killed for $73 million. The families accused the company of targeting younger, at-risk males in advertising, and placing their products in violent video games.
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.
"We've been in business over eight years -- legitimate, legal business. And we are very conservative when it comes to any kind of compliance, any kind of legality," said Bryan Clark, co-owner of Bristlecone Shooting Training and Retail Center in Lakewood.
"We're doing everything we can and doing things right, and now by this bill, if a product we happen to sell is used illicitly, it is very easy for somebody to come back and lump us into a lawsuit and expose us to civil liability."
Clark and his wife, co-owner Jacquelyn Clark, said they try to serve as an industry model for safety at their store and are involved in various community-based gun safety efforts.
While they said they can make changes at their business to accommodate new rules about age limits and waiting periods, adjusting to a lawsuit risk isn't so simple.
"It's not necessarily whether we prevail in any kind of civil action, it's that we have to stop, pivot, change our focus, and defend ourselves against what we have been doing legally for the last eight years," Bryan explained.
"Operating in the same safe, conscious, legal manner that we've been operating for the last eight years, we could now be open to liability, without changing anything that we've done," he added.
"What it does change is, when I lay my head down on my pillow at night, whether or not I can sleep. Is there somebody out there that may use something that I've sold in a bad way and I didn’t sell it to them with any knowledge of that," Jacquelyn added.
"But is it - in five, 10, 15 years down the road - going to come back to bite me?"
Several lawmakers said these new bills will make Colorado safer. The Clarks aren't so sure an easier path to legal action will accomplish that goal.
"I don’t think that’s going to change the behavior of the people who are using firearms illicitly," Bryan said. "I don’t think they even know about a law like this — it's not going to change anything in their mindset. So all it's really going to do is quell the industry, which might be the intended effect."
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