Colorado lawmakers passed two gun reform bills Sunday after three days of Republican filibustering that only ended after House Democrats dusted off a rarely used rule to accelerate votes and end what they described as stall tactics.
The two passed bills would expand the state’s red-flag law and make it easier to file lawsuits against gun manufacturers and dealers. The measures will head to Gov. Jared Polis‘s desk in the coming days, provided House and Senate Democrats resolve changes made between the two chambers. The measures’ passage and the tense debate around them came after hundreds of Denver students and teachers descended upon the Capitol to demand legislation to address gun violence in the wake of yet another school shooting here.
It was that call for action that animated Democrats’ speeches throughout the weekend’s debates. They said the bills would allow for better mental health interventions while removing Colorado-specific protections for gun manufacturers and sellers. Republicans, who spoke until the procedural clock ran out Saturday and Sunday, cast the debate as an attack on the Second Amendment and an overreach of government that wouldn’t help the state address gun violence or suicide.
The weekend widened the chasm between the Democratic supermajority and the historically small Republican minority in the chamber. The House worked late into Friday evening having made little progress on SB23-168 — the lawsuit bill — despite attempts to reach a deal on amendments to end a Republican filibuster. Lawmakers returned Saturday morning and pivoted to the red-flag law, hoping to simultaneously negotiate a deal to pass the lawsuit measure.
Hanging above the gridlock was the General Assembly’s rule 14, which, if enacted, limits debate to an hour per bill and hasn’t been used in the House in recent memory.
By Saturday night, Republicans showed no sign of slowing their filibuster. Several Democratic lawmakers, including Rep. Javier Mabrey, a co-sponsor of the lawsuit bill, said their side had reached repeated deals with Republican leaders to end debate and pass the bills. But those deals were broken, Mabrey and others said, prompting the majority to enact rule 14 and hasten the bills’ passages.
With debate limited, the House passed both bills on initial voice votes Saturday night, clearing the way for final approval the next day.
“I think that voters expect the people they elect to accomplish what they tell them they’re going to accomplish,” Mabrey said. “I don’t think that obstruction is popular. And this is democracy. Elections have consequences.”
The move drew howls from Republicans. Several already had stickers ready to protest the limitation. Rep. Scott Bottoms, a Colorado Springs Republican, would later call it “fascism” and likened it to a biblical stoning. Dave Williams, the GOP’s newly elected state chair, called Democratic leaders “vile tyrants” in a late Saturday statement. Minority Leader Mike Lynch said Democratic leaders had given in to the “radical fringes” of their caucus.
Asked about his own caucus’s right wing, whom Democrats said had scuttled negotiations, Lynch acknowledged that “we suffer from the fringes.” He indicated Republicans will now ask for more bills to be read at length over the remaining six weeks of the session — meaning their entire text read aloud, eating up more valuable time — as a response. One Republican staff member said his party’s response would be “punitive.”
Democrats, meanwhile, said Republicans were given ample opportunity over the weekend to voice their concerns over the bills and that it became clear that the minority party had no interest in productive debate. The Colorado legislature meets for only 120 days, and each burned hour has tangible consequences.
“We were on a clock, we’ve had multiple agreements that (Republicans have) blown past, and finally it just got to a point where it was clear they were not negotiating in good faith,” Mabrey said Saturday. “And we had to end debate. The idea that they didn’t get their say is ridiculous. We’ve been here for two full days debating these bills.”
In a Saturday statement, Democratic Speaker Julie McCluskie said that “the smallest minority in 60 years does not have the right to stop votes” that most voters support. Mabrey echoed that, noting the sweeping majorities Democrats won in November.
The two measures passed out of the House on Sunday represent half of the Democrats’ four priority gun bills this session. A third — to raise the age limit to legally purchase firearms to 21 — was introduced for initial approval before the full House early Sunday evening. Majority Leader Monica Duran swiftly moved to curtail debate on that bill to four hours.
The lawsuit bill — SB23-168 — would remove Colorado’s protections for gun dealers and manufacturers, making it easier for families and victims to file lawsuits against them. SB23-170 expands the state’s red-flag law, which currently allows law enforcement officials and family members to ask a judge to temporarily take someone’s firearms if they’re deemed to be a threat to themselves or others. Cast by Democrats as a way to slow suicides and external violence, the bill would allow educators, health providers and district attorneys to also file those petitions.
Tensions around the bills were already high. They are priorities for an ascendant Democratic Party whose members say they’re responding to voters’ demands for action to limit gun violence. The red-flag changes gained momentum in the wake of the Club Q shooting in November. The suspect in that case was known to local law enforcement and had previously threatened to commit a mass shooting.
Meanwhile, a gun rights organization had already pledged to sue should any of the measures pass into law, and Republican lawmakers said they would fight tooth and nail to delay and change the bills.
To add to the pressure, there had been increasing calls for Democratic leaders in the House to limit Republican filibusters, which could theoretically be endless. When the House began debating the lawsuit bill Friday afternoon, as the parents of an Aurora theater shooting victim watched from the wings, Republicans brought in a filing cabinet full of amendments, plus a box of energy drinks.
Friday passed with little progress. Mabrey, who with fellow Democratic Rep. Jennifer Parenti is sponsoring the bill, said throughout the day that he, Parenti and Democratic leaders were attempting to work with Lynch and Republicans to pass negotiated amendments and end debate. Republicans sought to limit the bill’s scope and protect businesses from what Bottoms cast as a pro-lawyer boondoggle. None of those negotiations bore fruit, and the House broke late Friday night.
The first nine hours of Saturday were much the same, as lawmakers pivoted to the red-flag law. Republicans raised concerns about the breadth of the bill, the red-flag law’s efficacy, and unintended consequence. Rep. Ty Winter, a Trinidad Republican, brought amendments that would remove mental health providers from the list of people who could seek a judge’s intervention. He worried, he said, about discouraging veterans and rural Coloradans from seeking care for fear that their weapons could be taken if they expressed suicidal ideations.
Democratic Reps. Jennifer Bacon and Mike Weissman, the red-flag bill’s sponsors, expressed sympathy for Winter’s concerns but said they wanted health providers to have the ability to intervene. Both said that step was optional, meaning a therapist wouldn’t be required to file a petition to disarm someone.
Still, as the day wore on and debate continued, Democrats’ patience thinned. Lawmakers said deals to end the filibuster fell through twice in the late afternoon (Republicans say the negotiations were ongoing). By 6 p.m., Democratic leadership had decided to propose rule 14 and limit debate, a “last resort,” one said, brought on by a desire to break the gridlock.
The rule requires a simple majority vote to enact, and senior Democrats moved between party members and ensured they were on board. Only one Democrat — Monte Vista Rep. Matthew Martinez — voted against it.
With the clock now ticking on the filibuster, Colorado Springs Republican Rep. Ken DeGraaf described his concerns with the red-flag law and criticized the lack of collaboration between the parties. As he spoke, Democratic Rep. Chris deGruy Kennedy, who was overseeing the chamber, interrupted him.
“The time allotted for this debate is now expired,” deGruy Kennedy said. “Thank you for your participation in this debate.”
A path to Polis
The legal liability and red flag bills received initial approval from the House on Saturday, setting up their final passage Sunday. Pending the reconciliation of amendments to the Senate version, it also set up a trip to Polis’s desk.
The effects of Saturday’s tension lingered. Bottoms, the Colorado Springs Republican, began Sunday by reading the dictionary definition of fascism, criticizing liberalism and suggesting Democrats’ limited debate because it “hurt” their souls. The entire Republican caucus — all 19 members — spoke against the red-flag law, often sharing searing personal experiences of suicide and mental health crises. Several became emotional or paused to compose themselves.
The Republicans described the bill’s expansion of the law as overly broad, ineffective and self-defeating. Some won’t seek mental health care if they fear they may lose their guns, they argued.
“It’s not a gun issue,” Winter said. “For us, it’s a self-preservation issue, it’s a constitutional issue, it’s the protection of our lives. And I’m scared. We hope there’s no ill-intended consequences from this. … But I’m scared there will be.”
Democrats, in turn, said the bill was a vital tool to both help avoid suicide and curb violence between people. Weissman, one of the Democratic sponsors, quoted “Dante’s Inferno” and said some in crisis need help through dark times. Bacon encouraged lawmakers to “stand in the tension.”
“On behalf of people who have been asking for help,” she said, “we will put you in a position to where you can get it.”
The measure ultimately passed on a party-line vote. Hours of time-limited debate on the lawsuit bill followed before that, too, passed, albeit with three Democrats voting against it. Republicans had argued that bill would hurt the gun industry and related businesses by opening them up to “frivolous” lawsuits. Lynch, the Republican leader, said the bill would do nothing to prevent violence.
Democrats, in turn, countered that gun makers were too insulated from civil lawsuits and that the companies enjoyed protections that other industries didn’t. Parenti, the bill’s co-sponsor, said victims of gun violence “should have the opportunity to seek fair justice in court when industry actions have contributed to the harm that was bestowed upon them.”
Before the debate on the lawsuit bill unspooled Sunday afternoon, Mabrey, the Democratic sponsor, moved to rename the measure after Jessica Redfield Ghawi, who died in the 2012 Aurora theater shooting. Her parents, Sandy and Lonnie Phillips, had attempted to sue the companies that sold the shooter ammunition and equipment. Because of Colorado’s protections for manufacturers and dealers, a judge dismissed the suit and required the Phillips pay more than $200,000 in attorney fees.
The Phillips watched the debate Friday and returned to the House on Sunday. They didn’t know that Mabrey was planning to rename the bill after their daughter. They stood arm-in-arm in the gallery above the chamber as the vote was tallied. Sandy mouthed “thank you” to lawmakers.
On the floor below, House Republicans settled in for several more hours of debate on the bill. Sandy Phillips smiled remembering how Jessica had taken to Colorado after moving from Texas. After hours of debate and years of work, she was part of history now, Sandy Phillips said.
“She adopted Colorado,” Lonnie said.
“And now,” Sandy said, “Colorado’s adopted her.”
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