DENVER — There is nothing that infuriates Colorado firearms owners more than the 15-round ammunition magazine limit enacted two years ago by Democrats, but a proposal to raise the limit to 30 rounds has split the state’s gun rights movement.
The issue is whether it’s better to neuter the 2013 law by doubling the legal limit, or hold out for nothing less than a full repeal. At the center of the rift is Dudley Brown, president of the National Association for Gun Rights, whose feuds over ideological purity have put him at odds with large swaths of the state and national movement.
The fireworks erupted this month when Democratic state Sen. Joe Salazar floated the idea of a 30-round limit. Mr. Salazar’s support is pivotal because he serves as vice chairman of the House’s “kill committee,” where Republican-sponsored gun rights bills traditionally go to die.
Embracing the idea were Jon Caldara and David Kopel of the Independence Institute, a Denver free market think tank and Second Amendment advocacy group. They say a 30-round limit would solve 99 percent of the limit’s problems, given that the most popular magazines for pistols and the AR-15 rifle can hold only 30 or fewer rounds anyway.
Mr. Brown, who also heads the Rocky Mountain Gun Owners, disagrees. He wants lawmakers to accept nothing short of the law’s eradication, arguing that a 30-round limit would weaken momentum for a repeal and guarantee that the magazine law will be “permanent and unrepealable.”
The debate quickly went personal, with both sides invoking against the other the specter of gun control advocate and former New York City Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg.
The Rocky Mountain Gun Owners accused the Independence Institute of being a Bloomberg “sleeper cell,” and Mr. Caldara countered that “Dudley Brown and Michael Bloomberg are now working for the same goal — to keep standard-capacity magazines from Coloradans.”
The Rocky Mountain Gun Owners group dubbed the 30-round proposal the “Kopel Kompromise” and slammed Mr. Kopel for being a registered Democrat.
Mr. Kopel calls the Rocky Mountain Gun Owners leader “a huckster and a hoax” who cares more about whipping his supporters into a frenzy to raise money than with enacting legislation to improve the situation of gun owners.
In another internecine battle over gun rights, Mr. Brown is attempting to derail the National Rifle Association’s National Right to Carry Reciprocity legislation, which would allow those with permits to carry concealed firearms in states that do not prohibit concealed carry.
Calling the bills a “Trojan horse,” the National Association for Gun Rights says in a March letter that the bills are unnecessary because “the Second Amendment is the only permit law-abiding gun owners should need” and warns that the measures would lead to registration and confiscation.
Sen. Rand Paul, Kentucky Republican and presidential hopeful, was not invited to this month’s NRA convention. The snub was based in part on the ties of Mr. Paul and his father to the National Association for Gun Rights, The Washington Times reported this month.
There is little love lost between Mr. Brown and some other gun rights advocates. The NRA referred to Mr. Brown in 2000 as the “Al Sharpton of the gun movement,” and the Second Amendment Foundation said last year that his rhetoric “has done more to marginalize Second Amendment activism than all of the slanders from gun prohibition lobbying groups combined.”
Nobody is benefiting from the Colorado firefight more than the state’s Democrats.
“Dems dropped the 30-round distraction like a piece of red meat between two pit bulls who hate each other, Kopel and Dudley. Both dogs took the bait,” one commenter told conservative talk show host Mandy Connell last week on KHOW-AM in Denver.
Mr. Brown points out that the debate is hypothetical, given that no such measure has been introduced. It clearly would take some legislative hustle to move a 30-round bill at this late date, although supporters insist there is still time for the Republican Senate leadership to introduce a bill and have it pass both houses before the May 6 adjournment.
Although advancing a 30-round bill would be difficult this year, those in favor argue that it’s far more achievable than waiting for a full repeal. Democrats killed a repeal bill last week in committee, along with a half-dozen other Republican-sponsored gun measures. Even if a repeal does pass, Gov. John Hickenlooper, a Democrat, is unlikely to sign it.
“There are not the votes for the repeal and there are not the votes to pass a 31-round ban, either,” Mr. Brown said on Ms. Connell’s show. “Because principled conservatives will not vote for that. And left-wing Democrats won’t vote for that either because they don’t want to remove the ban on 30-round magazines.”
Even so, a half-dozen callers to her show said they would rather see the limit doubled now than hold out for something that probably won’t happen unless Republicans take control of both legislative houses and the governorship.
“Reality’s reality. We’re not going to get a repeal. It’s not going to happen,” said a caller named John. “So I want my 30-round magazine back for my AR, I want my 17-round magazines back for my Ruger. That’s a standard-capacity magazine. That’s not a small thing.”
Mr. Brown countered that gun owners can buy and own magazines that exceed the 15-round limit. Most of the state’s county sheriffs oppose the 2013 law — they are represented by Mr. Kopel in a lawsuit challenging it — in large part because they say it’s unenforceable.
“To those people who say, ‘Wait a minute, I want to be able to buy my 30-round magazine,’ I say, ‘Shut your pie hole and go buy one.’ There are many retailers who sell them right now. They ignore the law,” Mr. Brown said. “And God bless them for doing so. And in many cases, your district attorney and your sheriff won’t be involved in any cases against you, anyway.”
Ms. Connell, a Second Amendment supporter, called his suggestion irresponsible. “I don’t know why you would encourage a gun store to put their licensing at risk because you disagree with the law.”
A caller named Steve who identified himself as a police officer said, “We’re all required to obey the law, and I think that’s bad advice.
“They took away our rights incrementally, we might have to get them back incrementally,” he said. “I don’t think the ban is right, but we should take the 30-round and keep going from there.”
Denver political analyst Eric Sondermann said there may be more sympathy for raising the magazine limit among Democrats than most people realize.
The governor has waffled on the magazine bill. He offered an apology to county sheriffs for not meeting with them and blamed his decision in part on a staffer in a meeting recorded last year by Revealing Politics.
“Everyone knew when the Democrats passed those gun bills back in 2013 — and whatever you made of them, and I supported most of them — that the weakness in that package of bills was the 15-round limit,” Mr. Sondermann said on Colorado Public Television’s “Colorado Inside Out.”
“Gov. Hickenlooper acknowledged as much at the time, even though he signed it, and tried to backtrack with that awkward appearance before the sheriffs,” he said. “Here, you have an opportunity to get that right.”
The Rocky Mountain Gun Owners group bills itself as “Colorado’s only no-compromise gun rights organization,” and Mr. Brown pointed out that its PAC spent heavily to elect Republicans last year, unlike the Independence Institute, which cannot back candidates, because it is registered under section 501(c)3 of the tax code.
“It’s our organization and our PAC that spent the money to elect the legislature and take the Senate from the Democrats,” Mr. Brown said on Ms. Connell’s show. “We were the biggest funders of Republican candidates in last election. Far bigger than the NRA.”
NRA spokeswoman Catherine Mortensen declined to comment on specifics of the Colorado squabble but said in a statement, “The NRA opposes arbitrary limitations on magazine rounds.”
Mr. Kopel, who is recognized as a legal authority on the Second Amendment, argues that the Rocky Mountain Gun Owners group has little to show for its activism.
“Dudley and his group have been around in Colorado’s lobbyists since the late ‘90s, and yet they have never passed a single bill,” Mr. Kopel said on “Colorado Inside Out.” “Dudley’s schtick is to keep people upset and angry and giving him money, and never to solve any problem.”
There is no doubt Mr. Brown has the political firepower to make Republicans’ lives difficult if they support a 30-round bill. His group has backed Republican primary challengers. Even though his candidates don’t always win, they can weaken Republican victors to the point where they are easily defeated by Democrats.
Ms. Connell suggested that the Rocky Mountain Gun Owners’ political priorities are misplaced.
“I heard from many people that they were extremely powerful and that you can’t go up against Rocky Mountain Gun Owners,” said Ms. Connell. “Well, the way I saw it was, if they were so powerful, we wouldn’t have a magazine limit right now in Colorado. We wouldn’t have expanded background checks here in Colorado.”
Among those frustrated with the gun rights movement’s circular firing squad is state Sen. Chris Holbert, a Republican who said the events brought “unnecessary division among the pro-Second Amendment community in Colorado.”
“There was no bill, nor was there an amendment to a bill, that could have changed the current 15-round magazine limit to 30 rounds,” Mr. Holbert said in a statement on Facebook. “That choice never actually existed, yet many took sides for or against that question. It would be one thing to throw principle out the window and embrace such a choice if it actually existed. It’s more disappointing that some chose to embrace such a change when the opportunity wasn’t even in play.”