- The Washington Times - Monday, January 24, 2000

DENVER A year ago, it would have been tough to find a state with more momentum behind the gun-rights issue than Colorado.
Republican Gov. Bill Owens was poised to sign a bill allowing residents to carry concealed weapons. Meanwhile, the National Rifle Association was gearing up to trumpet the victory at its annual convention here, the group's swagger evident by its huge billboard downtown of the NRA's president, Charlton Heston.
The situation today couldn't be much different. The Republican-controlled state legislature has made gun control its first priority, scheduling hearings on a slew of related bills including a package of firearms restrictions proposed by none other than Mr. Owens.
What changed the political dynamic was, of course, the tragedy at Columbine High School in Littleton. The April 20 shooting rampage that left 15 dead, including the two teen-age gunmen, is clearly weighing on the minds of state legislators across the nation as they get back to business this month.
In California, for example, the state legislature has put gun control at the top of its agenda, despite the pleas of Democratic Gov. Gray Davis to wait until last year's laws take full effect. Democratic legislators are jockeying for the privilege of carrying bills that would require licensing, registration and proficiency testing for handgun purchases.
Still, the political shift is most obvious in Colorado, where Republicans dominate the political scene; where the state's favorite elected official, Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell, appears in NRA ads; and where hunting is almost as popular as skiing and snowboarding.
In his State of the State speech earlier this month, Mr. Owens surprised gun-control advocates and enraged opponents by laying out a five-point plan to promote gun safety. His proposals, devised with Democratic Attorney General Ken Salazar, call for banning "straw purchases," meaning those made for someone who cannot legally buy a gun; requiring safe storage of firearms; raising the legal age to buy a gun from 18 to 21; including juvenile records in background checks; and requiring background checks at gun shows.
"Let me be clear: The Second Amendment guarantees that law-abiding citizens have a right to own firearms," said Mr. Owens in his speech. "But we must take common-sense steps to keep guns out of the hands of children and criminals."
State Sen. MaryAnne Tebedo of Colorado Springs plans to reintroduce the concealed-carry bill, but Dick Wadhams, the governor's spokesman, says Mr. Owens won't support it this time.
"It's too soon after Columbine to entertain that," said Mr. Wadhams.
How strongly Mr. Owens will lobby for his proposals is another question.
A suburban Republican known for his leadership on education and tax reform, Mr. Owens has never led the charge on Second Amendment issues, although he has consistently sided with his rural GOP counterparts on gun rights in the past.
John Head, co-founder of SAFE (Sane Alternatives to the Firearms Epidemic) Colorado, a gun-control group, says he believes the governor has undergone a genuine transformation in the wake of the Columbine tragedy.
"I think [Mr. Owens] has had a change of heart," said Mr. Head, who supports the governor's proposals. "I think he's learned some things since he witnessed the carnage at Columbine. He walked through the library and saw the computers still on and the knapsacks on the floor with blood everywhere, and that had to be incredibly moving."
But some analysts say the governor's move to the left is also grounded in political reality. By getting in front of the issue with a modest gun-safety package, he can steal the spotlight from his party's right wing and thus avoid a political drubbing by the Democrats in November.
"I believe he's skeptical that these proposals would have made a difference at Columbine or the next gun-related criminal activity, but he believes they do little harm and the political dynamic is moving overwhelmingly in that direction," said Denver-based pollster Floyd Ciruli.
"He wants these bills out there because he feels the governor has a responsibility here and he worries about the politics if conservative Republicans carry the only gun legislation," said Mr. Ciruli. "There is no way they [state Republicans] are going to go at loggerheads with the Democrats over an issue they know they'd get beaten over the head with."

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