Colorado: Polarized by the politics of a rural-urban divide

At dusk on a June day, Columbine High School is empty. Sprinkler jets stream rainbows across the fading sunlight and bright green lawn. “Safety first” signs are taped on all the doors.

Fifteen years ago, English teacher Paula Reed thought something different might come from the deaths of 12 students and one teacher at the hands of two teenagers, that heightened awareness of gun violence would yield answers to the question of gun safety.

History has proven her wrong.

“It simply created a huge chasm, at least in terms of what we’re talking about as a nation,” she said. “What I see us talking about in the media and on social media is this hardline, ‘Guns are evil, we need to get rid of all of them and the NRA’s evil,’ and, ‘You can pry my gun out of my cold, dead hand; don’t come after my guns.’

“I think most of us are in the middle, but that’s not where the discussion is occurring. And because of that, we can’t have a sane discussion that results in sane solutions.”

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After the Aurora and Sandy Hook shootings, Colorado’s legislature ushered in unprecedented gun control laws, including universal background checks and a ban on high-capacity magazines. But gun rights activists fueled two historic senator recalls and a resignation. A group of sheriffs and gun industry stakeholders sued Gov. John Hickenlooper, who in June took a public step back from the laws he favored a year ago.

This is a state divided by two high-profile mass shootings that resulted in 27 deaths; between gun-rights supporters and gun-control advocates; by a set of laws that continues to inspire dissent among residents and lawmakers. As elections approach, conservative lobbyists and lawmakers plan to grab hold of public opposition toward gun control, find a path toward redder terrain and win back their firearms rights no matter how long it takes.

It’s unknown whether Hickenlooper will be safe in the state that gave President Barack Obama a 5 percent margin of victory in 2012. A Quinnipiac University poll released in July put him neck-and-neck with Republican challenger Bob Beauprez. And several legislative seats in traditionally more conservative districts will be up for grabs.

“We used to be a very Republican state, and then all of a sudden, I don’t know what happened, it changed,” said John Cooke, a sheriff in Weld County, Colorado, who was the lead plaintiff in the suit against the 2013 gun laws. “We need to do a better job of electing people to the Senate, the House and electing a better governor. And once that happens, I think a lot of these gun laws are going to be repealed.”

Eleven years ago, Colorado’s Republican-dominated legislature likely couldn’t have passed the gun control legislation that defines today’s debate.

Following the Columbine shooting in 1999, a bill in 2000 closed the loophole that allowed the two teenagers who committed the attacks to legally obtain their guns from a friend who bought them at a gun show. Between 2000 and 2013, Colorado only saw five gun-related bills pass, the most consequential of which barred felons and those convicted of domestic violence from possessing firearms.

English teacher Paula Reed stands outside Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo., on June 6, 2014. Reed fled the building with students during the shooting at the school 15 years prior. Having lost students she was close to, she suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder. Photo by Morgan Spiehs/News21.

“The gun issue … just wasn’t on my radar screen,” said John Straayer, a political science professor at Colorado State University who has observed the Legislature for more than 40 years. “I remember more contentious blockbuster issues having to do with mandating motorcycle helmets than having to do with guns until rather recently.”

In 2004, Democrats gained control of the entire Legislature, which they’ve held but for a brief stint in 2011 and 2012. And that Democrat-dominant culture, as well as a shift in the national narrative, was the impetus for major changes, Straayer said.

“State after state after state is trying to do something about (gun violence),” Straayer said. “What’s happening nationwide is happening in Colorado. The salience of the whole gun issue has stimulated the introduction of this kind of gun legislation.”

In early 2013, Colorado’s Legislature introduced Aurora- and Sandy Hook-inspired gun control measures that got the state talking about firearms. House Bill 1224 banned the sale and transfer of high-capacity ammunition magazines. Senate Bill 195 required concealed-carry permit applicants to take in-person training. House Bill 1229 required background checks for private gun sales and transfers, already standard for public sales, and mental health reporting to a federal database.


As the snow was melting to feed Colorado’s mountain streams, Hickenlooper signed the bills into law and Colorado made some of the most dramatic gun policy changes in the country. It came as the state also made same-sex civil unions legal, granted in-state tuition to Colorado high school graduates who immigrated to the U.S. illegally and improved voter access by supplying mail-in ballots for all active state voters.

“We did more than we have in the last 20 years in moving Colorado forward,” said former Sen. Angela Giron of Pueblo, who was ousted in one of the recalls.

Democrats have been able to increase funding, get better candidates to run and benefited from a shifting demographic. But Straayer said Republicans have contributed far more to Colorado’s leftward shift since the 1970s.

“The Republican Party, over a three-decade period of time, pretty much eliminated the moderates in the party and moved further and further to the right and made themselves less and less attractive to the moderate voter, to the swing voter, to the unaffiliated voter,” Straayer said.

Patrick Neville was 15 when he witnessed Columbine shooters Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris walk toward his high school and open fire on classmates. Now, the Iraq War veteran is a self-described principled conservative running as the Republican nominee for the Colorado House in District 45, about 40 miles south of Denver.

On guns, the man who used them as a tool in Iraq feels Coloradans should harness rather than fear their power. He also wants to reject Obamacare and decrease the size of government, and on his website he calls himself “pro-life with no exceptions.”

“I was a college student and I was unable to conceal carry, at the time they banned it on campuses. I felt unsafe,” Neville said at a picnic table in downtown Castle Rock, Colorado. “I didn’t feel unsafe in Iraq, even in the most dangerous areas, because I knew we took the steps to prepare ourselves and I had the opportunity to defend myself.“

Neville is one of 11 Colorado Legislature candidates with an endorsement from Rocky Mountain Gun Owners, a significant player in gun politics for the state. To secure an endorsement, candidates must weather an intense vetting process and a questionnaire that ensures they won’t waiver on protecting and regaining gun rights, Neville said.

Republican Patrick Neville, who is running for a state house seat, supports gun rights and the repeal of an open carry ban in Castle Rock, Colo. Neville's brother is a lobbyist for Rocky Mountain Gun Owners, and his father is a former state senator. Photo by Morgan Spiehs/News21.

The endorsement is significant for Republicans. Ten of the group’s 11 candidates won their Republican primaries. The races are especially significant in five Senate districts because Republicans are one seat shy of the majority.

Endorsements from the group could also prove a benefit to some of the candidates’ Democratic opponents by alienating moderate voters who might vote Republican, particularly in districts 19 and 22, according to Straayer.

In those districts, the more conservative Senate candidates Tony Sanchez and Laura Woods won the nomination over more moderate Republican opponents, some of whom were endorsed by other gun groups.

“It’s not just the gun issue,” Straayer said. “They’re also more conservative, really pretty far out there on the right, more so than the candidates that lost. That could have an impact.”

News21 reached out to Rocky Mountain Gun Owners and its executive director, Dudley Brown, but messages went unreturned.

Guns and energy will be the two “high-profile issues” facing voters, Straayer said.

“You’ve got a good number of folks for whom the gun issue matters, but it goes in different directions depending which chunk of the voting public you’re talking about,” Straayer said. “I think the intensity is on the side of the gun lobby, the numbers are on the side of the people who are more comfortable with gun control. I’m not sure how you assess the consequences of that.”

The number of Coloradans applying for concealed-carry permits has more than doubled, with more than 100,000 applications in the two years following the Aurora theater shooting.

Standing in her office in Colorado Springs, Colo., on June 4, 2014, Christy Le Lait, the executive director of the El Paso County Democrats, points to signatures found to be fraudulent on a petition to recall Colorado Senate President John Morse. Photo by Morgan Spiehs/News21.

Coloradans’ reviews of the 2013 legislation have been mixed.

A February Qunnipiac University poll found that 52 percent of respondents opposed the laws, but taken piecemeal, their views changed: 86 percent supported universal background checks and 50 percent supported the magazine limit. When Qunnipiac asked the same three questions in November, 55 percent of Coloradans polled opposed the laws but 85 percent supported background checks and 49 percent supported the magazine limit.

In the July poll that showed Hickenlooper tied with Republican challenger Beauprez, 9 percent of respondents listed guns as the most important issue in this year’s gubernatorial race.

Luke Wagner is certainly in that 9 percent.

Wagner, an information technology guy, had never done anything more political than voting before he decided to get involved with what he likes to call the “second shift for liberty.” After Democrats passed their major pieces of legislation in 2013, he and other like-minded Coloradans formed the Basic Freedom Defense Fund to organize the recall elections of Giron and fellow Democratic Sen. John Morse.

Gun rights groups didn’t just target Morse and Giron, but recall movements for the two senators gained steam because they were both been elected by small margins and had been instrumental in passage of the 2013 gun laws. Morse was Senate president and Giron chaired the Senate committee that approved universal background checks.

Luke Wagner co-founded the Colorado Second Amendment Association, which led efforts to recall Angela Giron, John Morse and others who supported gun control legislation in the state. Photo by Morgan Spiehs/News21.

Now, Wagner and his supporters have shifted their focus toward a new organization: the Colorado Second Amendment Association.

“The way we got here was a slow process,” Wagner said. “Our rights were chipped away at, chipped away at, chipped away at, until there was an opportunity to go for the gusto. And the only way to get our rights back is to chip our way back, chip our way back, chip our way back.”

Wagner and some of the other organizers of the recall movement created an organization that wouldn’t lobby, but would instead educate people about guns and create a “network in Colorado of people who are willing to stand up for their rights,” he said.

The organization supports repealing the laws passed in 2013 and it keeps gun rights advocates updated with frequent blog posts and a monthly newsletter.

Wagner estimates he’s put about 1,500 miles and hours into his organizations and has no idea the amount of money he’s spent.

Despite Wagner’s concerted and successful campaign to throw two senators out of office, Giron and Morse still say they did the right thing.

“Sacrificing my political career … to do this was just an amazingly small price to pay compared to the price that the families of these gun-violence victims pay every minute of every day,” said Morse, a former police officer. “So I haven’t looked back and felt badly about this at all.”

Giron doesn’t have any regrets either.

“I feel so proud that I did this,” she said. “I wasn’t even a sponsor of any of the bills, but I wouldn’t change a vote. When I was voting on them, I had no concept that I’d be recalled or that I could have had any kind of impact that I had. Now that I do know that, if I went back to do that, would I change my vote?

“Absolutely not.”

Despite being recalled, Giron said she and Morse and former Sen. Evie Hudak, who resigned under the pressure of a recall, ultimately won the battle over guns because the laws are on the books.

“(The legislation) is going to help keep our citizens here in Colorado safe,” Giron said. “And that’s what we wanted. So we both really feel good about the work that we did and we wouldn’t change a thing.”

John Cooke holds the reins of his brown horse in his left hand. His right bursts through the clear, Rocky Mountain sky, waving at the crowd gathered in Parish Park.

It’s only the start of parade season, and Cooke still has plenty of appearances to make as he runs for a state Senate seat, where his competition will be a Democrat in a heavily Republican district.

Cooke, armed with a Smith and Wesson .45-caliber pistol, keeps a smile on his face and his eye on the prize. If elected, Cooke will try to repeal the guns laws passed in 2013, although he said that won’t necessarily be his first move because so many Democrats occupy the General Assembly.

Cooke leads a group of 55 Colorado sheriffs who backed a lawsuit to overturn the laws restricting magazine size and requiring universal background checks. U.S. District Judge Marcia Krieger ruled that the sheriffs couldn’t sue as elected officials, so Cooke and eight others signed on as private citizens.

In late June, Krieger threw out the suit, ruling that the magazine limit and background-check law aren’t an unreasonable burden on gun owners and sellers and therefore don’t infringe on Second Amendment rights. Plaintiffs filed a court notice July 28 that they plan to appeal Krieger’s decision.

In the meantime, Cooke refuses to enforce the laws: He argues they’re unenforceable as well as unconstitutional.

The ban on magazines that hold more than 15 rounds presents an issue for Cooke because law enforcement officers can’t look at a magazine and tell if it was purchased before last June, when the law went into effect. And Cooke said he violates the background-check law every time he hands a gun over to a new deputy without administering a background check.

“It’s not her job to tell me what I can and can’t enforce,” Cooke said of Krieger’s ruling. “I’m still the one that has to say, ‘Where do I put my priorities and resources?’ and it’s not going to be there. I’d rather capture the burglars, the child rapists, the drug dealers, that type of thing. That’s where my priorities are at, not trying to arrest law-abiding citizens.”

When Cooke took his oath of office, he swore to uphold the Colorado and United States constitutions, among other duties. But he never swore to enforce all state laws.

“Let’s face it,” he said. “Does anyone really believe that a criminal, or drug dealer or burglar, they want to go buy a gun and go to a gun store and get the background check, and once they get denied they stop? No, they’re going to go to their criminal friend and get one, or go break into a house and steal one.”


About 90 miles south of the Weld County Sheriff’s Office, Castle Rock Mayor Paul Donahue fights a different battle. Castle Rock, population 53,000, has more than doubled in size since 2000. The bedroom community is home to new housing developments, strip malls and shopping centers bustling with chain restaurants and a single gun store.

The Colorado Constitution protects the right to bear arms, but a revised statute clarifies that local governments can ban open carry in certain areas.

In Castle Rock, citizens can openly carry guns everywhere in town but municipal buildings, 19 public parks and 51 miles of trails. But few choose to exercise the right.

Donahue, mayor since 2008, wants to repeal Castle Rock’s 11-year ban on open-carry in the public spaces. He’s backed by the majority of the town’s seven-member council.

Mayor Paul Donahue poses for a portrait in his Edward Jones office in Castle Rock, Colo., on June 5, 2014. Voters will decide this fall whether to repeal the ban on the open carrying of firearms in town-owned buildings and parks; Donahue supports the repeal. Photo by Morgan Spiehs/News21.

Citizens will vote on the matter via mail-in ballot on Aug. 19.

“This isn’t a big deal,” Donahue said. “I mean, we’re talking about repealing a law that not many people paid attention to anyway. It’s more of an ideological thought process — if there’s no reason to take away this constitutional right, then why do it?”

But what seems simple, even perfunctory, to Donahue has inspired opposition from some Castle Rock leaders and citizens.

The town council had initially planned to repeal the open-carry ban on its own, until Ziggy Guentensberger and Jacob Vargish gathered 2,700 signatures from people who disagreed with the move, enough to bring the issue back to the council members, who then chose to arrange a vote.

Guentensberger, a father of two who works at a construction management firm, grew up hunting and used to own guns. He said he’s got nothing against firearms but is concerned about safety.

Siegfried Guentensberger, at his home in Castle Rock, Colo., on June 4, 2014, helped gather signatures to force a referendum on whether to repeal Castle Rock’s ban on open carry of firearms in parks and town-owned buildings. Photo by Morgan Spiehs/News21.

“You look at when Castle Rock was only 5,000 people, the majority of those people grew up on farms with guns,” he said. “They were very familiar with guns and it wasn’t a big deal. Now you have 55 (thousand), 50,000 people, majority of them haven’t grown up around guns. They don’t know how to use them; they’re not responsible.”

But Donahue isn’t worried.

“There’s got to be a little bit of risk,” he said. “There’s got to be some accountability for freedom. The government cannot control our every waking moment. … If it makes people uncomfortable if they see someone with a holstered firearm, or it makes them feel intimidated, then that’s their problem.”


As the debate roars on from Castle Rock to Columbine, Paula Reed, like many Coloradans, feels stuck in the middle.

The Columbine English teacher considers herself largely recovered. But that doesn’t mean she’s lost her stake in the fight.

“Sometimes you need a voice that says, ‘Yes, I went through a shooting,’” Reed said. “But no, I don’t think guns are evil, nor do I think that they are the answer to the problem. There’s an answer in the middle there somewhere.”

This story was informed by a source in the Public Insight Network.

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  • Robby Korth headshot

    Robby Korth

    Robby Korth graduated from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln with a journalism degree and a minor in political science. He is a News21 Peter Kiewet Fellow.

  • Jacy Marmaduke headshot

    Jacy Marmaduke

    Jacy Marmaduke is a senior journalism and political science student at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and is a News 21 Peter Kiewet Fellow.

  • Morgan Spiehs headshot

    Morgan Spiehs

    Morgan Spiehs is a senior journalism student at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln who specializes in photojournalism and is a News 21 Peter Kiewet Fellow.

  • Erin Patrick O’Connor headshot

    Erin Patrick O’Connor

    Erin Patrick O’Connor is an Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation News21 Fellow. He is a journalism graduate from the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University.

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