Littwin: It must be a relief for Jared Polis that an assault-weapons ban once again dies in the legislature

Gun Rights

Word of the latest failure by the overwhelmingly Democratic state legislature to pass a ban on the sale of assault-style weapons in Colorado must be a great relief for Gov. Jared Polis.

This cowardly failure means that, once again, Polis won’t be faced with the difficult prospect of having to decide whether he should sign such a bill into law. Polis has repeatedly expressed what he calls “skepticism” about the bill. I’d call it closer to blanket opposition. 

This is just a guess here, but I’m fairly certain that despite his opposition, Polis would be reluctant to actually veto the bill — and for one simple reason. The politics of such a veto could be a disaster for a Democrat with presidential aspirations.

Polis denies he has presidential ambitions. You can believe him if you want. I’ll remain skeptical.

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He won’t be forced to make a veto decision this year. The bill’s Senate sponsor, Julie Gonzales, has called for House Bill 1292 to be killed, meaning the game is over. While killing the bill, she praised the House for being bold enough to pass it. But Gonzales had little choice.

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The session is in its final days. The bill might not have even made it through committee. And the prospects for the full Senate looked dim, which is one reason why the bill, after being passed by the House in mid-April, never came to a vote in the Senate.

So, Polis wins.

As for the rest of us —  not counting, I guess, the benighted folks at the guns-uber-alles Rocky Mountain Gun Owners — not so much.

This represents a significant retreat from the steady progress made by the legislature, with Polis’ support, in many areas of gun safety. For a western state, where guns are often said to be a part of the DNA, Colorado remains a leader in doing what it can, even in the face of adverse Supreme Court rulings, to limit the chances that a gun would end up in the hands of the wrong person.

But a ban on assault-style weapons, which is already being challenged in the courts in other states that have passed one, makes a statement toward gun sanity that few other laws can evoke.

In fact, The Washington Post just won a Pulitzer for its brilliant and astonishing series on America’s fatal attraction to the AR-15 — which it labeled “American Icon.” It details the story of how a gun that was designed for the military and was originally seen by gun manufacturers as a back-of-the-store option became the weapon of choice through shrewdly cynical advertising that would hype the AR-15 as the “cool” gun.

It worked. Roughly 16 million Americans would buy at least one of these, uh, cool guns.

It also became the weapon of choice for mass shooters. Since 2012, 10 of the 17 most deadly shootings have featured an AR-15, including the shooting at the Boulder King Soopers.

Other assault-style weapons figured in a few of the other shootings. It’s a contagion. It’s a killer contagion.

And because the AR-15 and similar guns are now bestsellers, they are also a priority for the National Rifle Association and other gun groups. As Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Connecticut., told the Post, “The protection of the AR-15 has become the number one priority for the gun lobby. It makes it harder to push this issue on the table because the gun lobby does so much messaging around it.”

Murphy became a leading advocate for gun safety following the Sandy Hook killings in 2012. And since 2012, the Post writes, nearly 14 million AR-15s have been sold, with revenues — through 2020 — totaling $11 billion. 

But the Post series does more than tell the story of how a gun became so popular. It also shows, in virtually unprecedented detail, what devastation the gun inflicts on the human body. We’re squeamish about seeing dead bodies. We’re squeamish about seeing what terror an assault-style weapon can deliver. 

I wish the series had been mandatory reading in the legislature and in the governor’s office.

“I’ve long been skeptical of discussions around ‘this kind of equipment versus that kind of equipment,’” Polis told The Sun in an interview earlier this year. “I think it’s more an issue of making sure our gun safety laws are followed. I think where you can and can’t safely carry guns is a legitimate discussion, as well as making sure that our strong gun laws are enforced.”

Maybe the governor, who is an otherwise excellent student, would know better about one kind of equipment versus another if he read the series.

When in Congress, Polis supported an assault-weapons ban. But as governor, he makes the case that state bans aren’t effective when you can drive a few hours from, say, Denver to buy an assault-style weapon in another state, and that a national ban is the only option.

But history tells a different story. History tells us that support for a controversial change in law — say, the remarkable changes that have taken place regarding same-sex marriage and the legalization of marijuana — often begins from the ground up.

As Joe Biden likes to remind us, Congress passed a bill into a law in 1994 banning the sale of assault-style weapons. But the law was allowed to sunset after 10 years when Congress refused to renew it, even though one study showed mass-shooting deaths were far lower in that period. Not all studies, I admit, have reached the same conclusion.

But it is only in recent years, following the spate of mass shootings, following the horrifying statistic that guns have become the leading cause of death for American children and teens, that Democrats have become emboldened again on guns.

Ten states have now passed laws affecting the sale of assault-style weapons. In some of those states, the possession of assault-style weapons is banned. These laws are being challenged in court, of course, but popular opinion is changing.

According to a 2023 Pew Research poll, 64% of Americans strongly or somewhat approve of banning assault-style weapons. Among Democrats, as Polis must have noticed, the number is 85%. 

I would assume the numbers in Colorado aren’t all that much different from the national numbers. And I assume that after the November elections, Democrats will maintain overwhelming majorities in both houses of the legislature.

And I would assume, therefore, that the legislature will introduce a similar bill again next year. A bill passed through the House this year. Maybe next year, if we’re lucky, one can get through the Senate.

In any case, I’m confident that, whatever Polis prefers, a ban on assault-style weapons will pass in Colorado eventually. I just hope it doesn’t take yet another mass shooting in Colorado with yet another assault-style weapon to make it happen.

Mike Littwin has been a columnist for too many years to count. He has covered Dr. J, four presidential inaugurations, six national conventions and countless brain-numbing speeches in the New Hampshire and Iowa snow. Sign up for Mike’s newsletter.

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Type of Story: Opinion

Advocates for ideas and draws conclusions based on the author/producer’s interpretation of facts and data.

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