DENVER | Colorado Gov. John W. Hickenlooper has positioned himself as a problem-solver who steers clear of extremes, but sitting on his desk are three gun control bills that threaten to redefine his image and even his political future.
The first-term governor is expected to sign all three at a ceremony Wednesday. Whatever he does will be viewed as a crossroads for the former geologist and brewery owner who's already in the discussion as a potential Democratic presidential candidate.
"The governor pretty well skated through the first two years of his term without anything controversial hitting his desk," said Colorado Republican strategist Dick Wadhams. "All of a sudden he's in a position where he has to decide on gun control bills that are going to reveal him for who he is."
The 61-year-old governor is caught between two cultural currents now at war in Colorado: the state's longtime Western tradition of gun ownership, and the recent push for public safety in the wake of two notorious mass shootings, notably the July 20 massacre at the Century 16 theater in Aurora that left 12 dead.
State Democrats, who control both houses of the legislature, insist the measures will help prevent such shootings. Fighting them at every turn are state Republicans and gun-rights advocates, who have launched an eleventh-hour campaign aimed at convincing the governor to veto the bills.
The most hotly contested measure is House Bill 1224, which would restrict ammunition-magazine capacity to 15 rounds and has at least two companies vowing to relocate if it becomes law. The other two bills would mandate universal background checks and require gun buyers to pay for their checks.
Critics charge that HB 1224 was sloppily drafted and will make nearly all ammunition magazines illegal, given that most can be converted to hold more than 15 rounds. Even the act of handing someone a magazine would be a crime, they say, because the bill calls for magazine owners to maintain "continuous possession."
At a news conference Monday, Republican women legislators took turns handing an ammunition magazine to each other to make the point.
"This is how easy it is to turn the average citizen, the average woman, into a criminal," said Republican state Rep. Lori Saine. "And folks, that's wrong. This is unenforceable."
Denver political consultant Eric Sondermann said the governor could straddle the issue by vetoing the bill and sending it back for a redo.
"Maybe there's an opportunity for him to play that centrist card, Mr. Reasonable, not a rubber stamp, and take HB 1224 and send it back," said Mr. Sondermann on Rocky Mountain PBS-TV's "Colorado Inside Out." "If he does that, then he can gain some centrist ground."
At the same time, Mr. Hickenlooper faces significant pressure from the left to sign the bills. His relationship with the environmental movement remains chilly, thanks largely to a pro-business agenda and his defense of hydraulic fracturing.
"Hickenlooper receives more criticism within his own party than from conservatives in the Republican Party," said Denver pollster Floyd Ciruli. "Democrats are particularly upset with him on environmental issues. This would add to their consternation if he vetoes this."
Signing the measures would also help him gain ground with national Democrats now pushing a gun control agenda in Congress. That may not concern Mr. Hickenlooper if he plans only to run for re-election -- he's the odds-on favorite in 2016 -- but it could matter a great deal if he wants to test the waters for president.
"I don't know if he has national aspirations in 2016, but if he signs these, then I think that tells us something," said Mr. Wadhams. "Gun control is a litmus test for the Democratic base. I think that would signal Day One of John Hickenlooper's presidential campaign."
Coloradans have watched the governor's stance on firearms morph in the months since the Aurora theater massacre in July. In the aftermath of the shooting, he implied the shooter would have been able to carry out his plan even without firearms, saying, "if it wasn't one weapon, it would have been another."
In January, however, Mr. Hickenlooper said "the time is right" to consider gun control restrictions such as universal background checks. A month later, he said in a Facebook post that he would sign most of the gun control bills, including HB 1224.
"He endorsed this. He may regret it now, but he did endorse it," said Mr. Ciruli. "He's the kind of guy who wants to be universally appreciated, but this issue is going to cost him some votes. I just don't think it's going to be that many."
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