Colorado bill banning so-called assault weapons would outlaw sale — not possession — of such guns

Gun Rights

The sale and attempted sale of so-called assault weapons would be banned in Colorado under a bill set to be introduced by Democrats in the legislature this year. But possession of such firearms in the state would still be allowed. 

Rep. Andrew Boesenecker, a Fort Collins Democrat who will be the lead sponsor of the forthcoming measure, told The Colorado Sun on Monday that criminal and civil penalties under the measure would be reserved for individuals, businesses and manufacturers that sell or try to sell so-called assault weapons. That’s a change from an earlier draft of the proposal, which also would have banned possession of the firearms.

“We know that when we create space between the motive to do something horrific and the ready availability of a firearm with which to do that we save lives,” he said. 

Because of the change, Boesenecker said Coloradans who already own what the bill defines as an assault weapon wouldn’t face penalties. Neither would a Coloradan who travels to a neighboring state to purchase an assault weapon and returns home with the firearm.

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Under the bill, selling or attempting to sell a so-called assault weapon would be a Class 2 misdemeanor, which is punishable by up to 120 days in jail, a fine of up to $750 or both. 

Violators would also be subject to civil penalties. Individual violators could be fined $1,000 for an offense between July 1 and Dec. 31, 2024, and $5,000 for an offense on or after Jan. 1, 2025. Licensed firearms dealers would be subject to a fine starting on July 1 of $250,000 for a first offense and $500,000 for second and subsequent offenses.

The bill would also, starting on July 1, ban the possession of rapid fire trigger actuators, which can make semiautomatic guns fire at a rate similar to that of an automatic weapon. A semiautomatic weapon fires one bullet per trigger pull, whereas an automatic weapon continues firing bullets until the trigger is released. 

Boesenecker said that the latest draft of the bill — which is expected to be the version introduced — hasn’t changed from earlier versions when it comes to what would be defined as an assault weapon. (An earlier draft was leaked to Rocky Mountain Gun Owners, a hard-line gun rights group, which posted the version on Twitter.)

(Editor’s note: Why do we say the bill bans the sale or attempted sale of “so-called” assault weapons? There is no uniform definition for what an assault weapon is, though the forthcoming bill defines what types of weapons would be considered an assault weapon in Colorado.)

The latest 13-page  draft of the bill, a copy of which was reviewed Monday by The Sun, would define assault weapons by their features rather than by specific makes and models.

The measure would define an assault weapon as a semiautomatic rifle that has the capacity to accept either a detachable magazine or has the capacity to be modified to use a detachable magazine along with one or more of several additional features, including:

  • A pistol grip or anything that could function as a grip by the user’s non-trigger hand
  • Any type of changeable stock — folding, telescoping, thumbhole or detachable — that would reduce the size of the firearm to conceal it
  • A tool to suppress the muzzle flash 
  • A functional grenade launcher
  • A barrel shroud to protect a user from being burned if they hold it with a non-trigger hand
  • A threaded barrel 

The bill would also define an assault weapon as a semiautomatic pistol that has the capacity to accept either a detachable magazine or the capacity to be modified to use a detachable magazine along with one or more of several additional features, including:

  • A threaded barrel 
  • A second pistol grip or anything that could function as a grip by the user’s non-trigger hand
  • A barrel shroud to protect a user from being burned if they hold it with a non-trigger hand
  • A tool to suppress the muzzle flash 
  • The capacity to accept a detachable ammunition-feeding device at some location outside of the pistol
  • A manufactured weight of 50 ounces or more if unloaded
  • A buffer tube, arm brace or other feature that protrudes horizontally behind the pistol grip

The sale or attempted sale of shotguns with revolving cylinders and semiautomatic firearms that can accept a belt ammunition feeding device would also be banned, as would the sale or attempted sale of .50 caliber rifles and semiautomatic rifles with a fixed, large-capacity magazine.

Finally, the ban would also include semiautomatic shotguns with one or more of the following features:

  • A pistol grip or anything that can function as a grip by the user’s non-trigger hand
  • Any type of changeable stock — folding, telescoping, thumbhole or detachable — that would reduce the size of the firearm to conceal it
  • A functional grenade launcher
  • A fixed, large-capacity magazine
  • The capacity to accept a detachable magazine

The ban wouldn’t include antique firearms made before 1899, replicas of antiques or permanently inoperable firearms. It also wouldn’t include firearms that are manually operated by a bolt, pump, lever or slide action — unless the firearm is a shotgun with a revolving cylinder — or firearms that can only fire rimfire ammunition.

Boesenecker said he modeled the assault weapons definition after legislation that has been passed in other states. According to Giffords, a group that advocates for tighter gun regulations, there are fewer than a dozen states with so-called assault weapons bans. They include California, Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey and New York.

When the bill will be formally unveiled is unclear. Boesenecker said discussions with interest groups are ongoing. 

“Our stakeholder conversations continue,” he said. “Will anything change before introduction? I don’t think so. But I can always (make revisions).”

State Rep. Andrew Boesenecker, a Fort Collins Democrat, speaks with Rep. Edie Hooton, a Boulder Democrat, on June 2, 2021. (Thy Vo, Colorado Sun)

Boesenecker said he’s open to discussions with gun rights groups, including Rocky Mountain Gun Owners, the National Rifle Association and the Colorado State Shooting Association.

“Would I expect that we would agree on a lot of the bill or any of the bill?” he said. “No. But, I mean, that’s the job. You meet with everybody who wants to have a good-faith discussion about the legislation.”

The proposed weapons sale ban is part of a slate of gun-control legislation Democrats are set to consider at the Capitol this year in the wake of the Club Q shooting in Colorado Springs. Other pending measures include bills increasing the age at which someone can purchase a shotgun or rifle to 21 and enacting a waiting period between when someone purchases a firearm and can take possession of the weapon. 

Democrats also want to expand Colorado’s red flag law, which lets judges order the temporary seizure of guns from people deemed a significant risk to themselves and others, and create policy around “ghost guns,” which are home-manufactured firearms without serial numbers.

The assault weapons measure, however, is likely to be the most contentious gun bill debated by the legislature in 2023, if not ever. It’s unclear whether Boesenecker and his fellow prime sponsors — Rep. Elisabeth Epps, D-Denver, and Sen. Rhonda Fields, D-Aurora — will pick up enough support to pass the legislation. 

(Fields confirmed to The Sun she is working on the bill. Epps’ name is on the draft legislation —and Boesnecker said she is a lead sponsor — but she has refused to speak with Sun reporters, including on Monday.)

Democrats control the House and Senate by wide margins, but assault weapons bans haven’t been introduced in the past because of a lack of political will. 

Colorado Gov. Jared Polis delivers his State of the State address to lawmakers assembled in the House of Representatives chamber in the Colorado Capitol Tuesday, Jan. 17, 2023, in Denver. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)

Gun rights organizations and Republicans are already lining up in fierce opposition to the bill, but both groups have little power to stop the measure. 

Gov. Jared Polis, a Democrat, appears highly skeptical of the measure. He declined to discuss the proposal last week during a news conference. “I haven’t seen anything like that,” he said.

Polis could veto the measure should it pass the legislature and make it to his desk.

Boesenecker said Monday that the governor hasn’t seen the latest draft of the bill. 

“The governor is a stakeholder like any other,” he said. “Of course, he has a (veto) pen that I don’t have. But we have a responsibility as a legislature to put bills on his desk that reflect the priorities of our communities. That’s where this bill comes from — concerns in my district and across the state.”

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