Colorado has been enacting gun control laws at a rapid clip for years, and yet none of those restrictions was able to prevent Monday’s horrific attack at a Boulder grocery store.
Gun-rights supporters say that disconnect ought to give federal and state lawmakers pause as they ramp up calls for tougher firearms regulations in response to the deadly double-whammy in Boulder and Atlanta.
“The misguided notion that tragedies like this will stop happening if we just pass the right laws is as dangerous as it is false,” said Reed Cooley, a spokesperson for Young Americans for Liberty. “If it were true, Colorado — which already has universal background checks, large-capacity magazine bans, and ‘red flag’ laws — would be one of the safest states in the country.”
Instead, Coloradans are once again grappling with another mass-casualty event, which occurred despite gun control bills passed after the 1999 Columbine High School massacre and the 2012 Aurora theater shooting, as well as the extreme risk protection order, or “red flag” law, signed by Gov. Jared Polis in 2019.
“Colorado has every gun law known to this country … but that didn’t prevent this incident,” former FBI assistant director Chris Swecker said on Fox News.
The gun-control group Giffords ranks Colorado 15th out of 50 states for “strong gun safety laws,” cheering lawmakers for keeping up the fight despite a 2013 recall that resulted in the ouster of two Democratic state senators.
At the same time, Giffords Law Center senior counsel Allison Anderman said there was room for improvement, noting that Colorado received a grade of C+ and adding that there may be only so much that states can do in the absence of federal action.
“Guns cross state lines, which are porous,” Ms. Anderman said. “Until we have comprehensive federal gun-safety legislation, we’re never going to see how effective gun laws can be.”
In Colorado, the Democrat-controlled state legislature is considering bills that would tighten gun-storage rules and require reporting of lost of stolen firearms. Neither of those would have affected the Boulder shooting, based on information released so far by police.
The suspect, 21-year-old Ahmad Ali Aliwi Alissa, is expected to make his first court appearance Thursday after being charged with 10 counts of first-degree murder, one for each of the victims killed at the King Soopers grocery on Table Mesa Drive.
Found at the scene were an AR-15 style rifle and a Ruger AR-556 semiautomatic pistol, which the arrest affidavit says he was able to purchase on March 16, despite pleading guilty to misdemeanor assault in 2017 when he was in high school. Juvenile records typically are sealed by courts.
The red flag law, designed to enable police or family members to have weapons seized from relatives who pose a danger to themselves or others, also failed to stop the shooting, even though the suspect has been described by his older brother as mentally ill.
The family knew the suspect had a gun — in the affidavit, his sister-in-law said she became upset when she saw him playing with what she called a “machine gun” in the house — and yet such laws depend on the ability of typically untrained relatives to determine whether their loved ones are merely off-kilter or truly dangerous.
Mr. Polis, the Democratic governor, made a plug for parents to take advantage of state resources.
“If you think that your son, your daughter is a danger to themselves or others, there is a recourse if they do need help,” Mr. Polis said on Fox News. “I know a lot of parents in that situation just don’t know what to do because they see a son or daughter who’s losing their grasp on reality. There are professionals who can help.”
President Biden has called for universal background checks and magazine-ammunition limits — both of which Colorado already has — as well as a ban on “assault weapons,” which Colorado does not have — but that Boulder did until March 12.
Ten days before the shooting, a judge blocked Boulder’s 2018 assault weapons ban pending the outcome of a lawsuit from the Colorado State Shooting Association, prompting an outcry from those who argued that but for the court ruling, the gunman may have been prevented from carrying out the attack.
“The reason we had the assault-weapons ban was to prevent exactly the sort of tragedy that happened yesterday,” Boulder City Council member Rachel Friend told the AP.
Others were skeptical. Both weapons found at the scene likely qualified under the Boulder ban, which prohibits the possession and sale of assault weapons and magazines exceeding 15 rounds. But the suspect didn’t live in Boulder; he lived about 20 minutes away in Arvada.
Police have not said where he purchased the Ruger, but the ordinance would not have stopped him unless he bought the firearm in Boulder.
“Under the ban, you can’t own one or buy one, but it doesn’t stop somebody who owns one from driving through town,” said Jon Caldara, president of the free-market Independence Institute in Denver.
In fact, Mr. Caldara, who lives in Boulder, said the city wasn’t enforcing the ordinance at all. He had made it known that he possessed firearms in violation of the prohibition. Nobody ever came to confiscate them.
“They have not made as far as I know a single citation,” Mr. Caldara said. “I was in open defiance of it, and as the most obvious and outspoken criminal, I made it very clear if they wanted to come and take my weapons, just let me know beforehand so that my kids are not around. They can seize my weapons and arrest me.”
Why not arrest him? Mr. Caldara said that when asked by reporters, the city had cited his lawsuit, which is separate from the shooting association challenge backed by the National Rifle Association.
Ms. Anderman said the entire issue with local ordinances versus state laws could be solved with congressional action. “A federal assault weapons ban would have stopped him [the suspect] from obtaining that weapon,” she said.
In his ruling, Boulder County District Judge Andrew Hartman said the assault weapons ban was in violation of a 2003 state law preempting gun restrictions by local governments, a conflict that the shooting has placed on the radar of the Democrat-controlled legislature.
Senate Majority Leader Steve Fenberg said he is discussing repealing the 2003 law with legislative attorneys, according to the Denver Post. Even before the shooting, the legislature was on a path to passing bills on tightening gun storage and requiring reporting of lost or stolen firearms.
“It’s incredibly infuriating,” Mr. Fenberg told MSNBC. “We’ve done quite a bit in Colorado on gun-violence reform. I think we’re absolutely going to do more. But we also need national action, we need federal action, and I urge the president and Congress and the Senate to think long and hard.”
At the same time, he said he doubted the assault weapons ordinance would have stopped the shooting, telling the Post that “it’s not like if the city of Boulder had had that ban in effect, that this wouldn’t have happened.”
“But it doesn’t mean it’s not a relevant conversation and tool that communities should have,” Mr. Fenberg said.
What if Colorado had had a waiting period in place? Such a question is unanswerable, but Mr. Caldara noted that the suspect had already waited six days in between buying the Ruger and allegedly opening fire on the supermarket.
“I can’t see in the guy’s mind; however, it’s not like a five-day waiting period would have helped. It’s not like a six-day waiting period would have helped,” he said. “We can engage in conjecture: ‘Oh, if only he had one more day, he would have come to his senses.’”
Such speculation also fails to take into account whether waiting periods would be allowed under Second Amendment, he said, adding that “a civil right delayed is a civil right denied.”