Democrats defend gun background check law, turn back GOP repeal try

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DENVER — Like most sequels, Monday’s long debate over background checks on private gun sales at the Colorado Capitol wasn’t nearly as charged or suspenseful as the original.

And the ending was a familiar one, with Democrats still in control of both legislative chambers.

Republicans, having gained two senate seats last fall from recall elections sparked by a backlash to the Democratic gun bills, are pushing several bills this year ostensibly aimed at repealing the laws enacted last year and keeping the issue front and center heading into this fall’s election, a more attainable goal.

Democrats, now holding just a one-seat majority in the state senate, sought to improve the legislative process this time around, allowing several hours for everyone in the chamber to testify on the record after complaints about last year, when Democrats scheduled all seven gun bills in two committees on the same day.

And a year after watching GOP opponents dominate debate on these bills, Democrats vigorously defended the policy itself, aggressively cross-examining Republicans looking to scrap the new law and offering a number of statistics to demonstrate that background checks on private sales are working.

“Over 100 criminals and other dangerous persons have been denied the purchase of guns in private sales,” said Eileen McCarron, the director of Colorado Ceasefire, at a press conference before Senate Bill 94 was heard by the Senate State, Veterans and Military Affairs Committee.

In all, 6,076 background checks have been conducted for private and online sales. That’s a small percentage of the overall number of checks for the year, 389,604.

The denial rate after a background check on private and online transactions is just under 2 percent, about the same as the overall rate.

Ron Sloan, the director of the Colorado Bureau of Investigation, expanded on the statistics compiled between last July 1, when the new law took effect, and the end of the year.

“There is a public safety interest, a compelling public safety interest here and that compelling public safety interest is prevention,” Sloan said. “I think the raw numbers speak for themselves.”

Beyond just defending the law itself, Democrats put the bill’s sponsor, Sen. George Rivera, R-Pueblo, on his heels by asking if he believed criminals should be allowed to purchase guns more easily, without background checks.

“Do you think it is a good policy to keep guns out of the hands of criminals?” Sen. Irene Aguilar, D-Denver, asked Rivera at the hearing’s outset.

“Yes, I do,” said Rivera, who was elected last September to take the seat of former Sen. Angela Giron in one of the two successful recall elections.

“My constituents in Pueblo sent me here to give a message,” he said. “They don’t like the gun laws.”

Rivera believes that criminals who are denied guns by the state will obtain them some other way.

“People who are intent on getting around the law find a way to,” he said.

“I think the value of one life is worth the inconvenience to the others,” said Aguilar, who criticized the backers of the recall that brought Rivera into office for misleading petition signers by telling them that the law forbids family members to share their guns.

“If this saves one life, it’ll be worth it to me.”

While some gun owners and retailers argued that the law is burden on law-abiding gun owners, relatives of shooting victims and concerned parents of students at Arapahoe High School urged lawmakers to stand strong behind the new law.

“Let me inform you what is really a burden,” said Jane Dougherty, whose sister was among the 26 people killed in December 2012 at Sandy Hook School in Newtown, Conn.

“A burden is the senseless slaughter of a family member.”

Joe Neville with the group Rocky Mountain Gun Owners argued that the background check law is an effort to create a statewide gun registry.

“Any time you do a background check, you’re attaching a person’s name to a weapon and entering that into a database,” Neville said. “That’s a registry. As long as Democrats are in office, they’re going to be going after our Second Amendment rights.”

Democrats, at their press conference prior to the hearing, dismissed that argument as “a lie.”

After six hours of testimony, only opponents of the bill — those who support expanded background checks — were left to testify, a reversal from last year’s proceeding, when Second Amendment advocates vehemently opposed to the Democratic gun control package filled the Capitol’s hallways and hearing rooms, with others circling the building in their cars, honking their horns in a daylong din of protest.

In total, 20 people supporting the bill addressed the committee; and “close to 40″ who oppose the repeal of expanded background checks also testified, according to the committee chairman, Sen. Jessie Ulibarri, D-Adams County.

Even after last year’s recalls, Democrats maintain a one-seat majority in the senate — and on all senate committees.

As such, the final vote at the end of the long afternoon came as no surprise: 3-2 right down party lines, killing the legislation to repeal the background checks law.

“I think this is just common sense,” Ulibarri said just before the final vote. “And we need to see this law stay.”