DENVER (AP) — Standing firm on new firearm restrictions, Colorado Democrats are on the cusp of advancing aggressive gun-control proposals Friday in a state balancing a history of heartbreaking shootings with a Western heritage where gun ownership is treasured by many.
The debate playing out in Colorado is being watched closely because its moderate political makeup makes it a testing ground to see how far the nation is willing to go with new gun laws in the wake of mass shootings in a suburban Denver movie theater and a Connecticut elementary school. Already the White House has weighed in, with Vice President Joe Biden phoning four lawmakers while on a recent ski vacation here to nudge the Democrats during their first major gun debate last month.
Democratic lawmakers pushing for the stricter measures, including more background checks and limits on the size of ammunition magazines, are facing powerful opposition from gun-rights advocates. They flooded the state Capitol by the thousands earlier this week, waving "Don't Tread On Me" flags and blaring car horns as they circled the block while bills were being considered in committees. Some Democrats have reported getting threatening emails and phone calls.
The stakes get higher Friday, when the Senate takes up seven Democratic gun-control measures in a marathon debate expected to last late into the night. Democrats hold a 20-15 advantage in the chamber, meaning they have a narrow margin to pass the bills. Republicans need only three Democrats to vote no to defeat a bill, and two Democrats have already expressed opposition to some of the measures.
Among the more controversial bills pending is a proposal to end Colorado's unusual practice of allowing concealed weapons on public college campuses. Another would set liability standards for sellers and owners of assault weapons for crimes.
Democrats are also face pressure on a bill limiting ammunition magazines to 15 rounds. Officials at a company that manufactures magazines said if the bill passes they will leave, and take hundreds of jobs and millions of dollars in revenue with them.
But Democrats remained resolute about their proposals' chances, and say the public is on their side.
"The world changed largely in Colorado in July with the Aurora theater shooting," Senate President John Morse said Thursday. "But when you've got 20 6-and-7 year old kindergarteners that are massacred on December 14, I mean that just seared the consciousness of this generation and I think you're seeing huge changes in the way people view gun violence and the way that we ought to be approaching it."
The GOP insists most Coloradans don't agree with the gun bills, and even some Democrats have been reluctant to support. The Democrats who have voted no have cited the state's frontier heritage, where rural residents grow up with guns for hunting or self-defense in the state's sparsely populated areas around the urban core.
Republican Rep. Mark Waller, the GOP leader in the House, disagrees with Morse's assertion that the public agrees with what Democrats are pitching. But he said lawmakers will ultimately find out with the next election.
"I believe that in large part the voters will decide that in 2014, won't they?" he said.
Democratic Senate Leader Morgan Carroll, who represents the district where the theater shooting happened, said the debate this year needed to happen.
"If we failed to act, even before Newtown for my district, if we failed to act, we would be falling down on the job and it would be because of lack of courage. And I will be honest, it is taking some," she said.
The shooting at a suburban Denver theater in July left 12 people dead, and at least 58 others wounded. It was one of the worst mass shootings in the nation's history in a state living the unfortunate legacy of the 1999 Columbine High School massacre.
Still, Republicans argue Democrats have overreached with their proposals this year.
"I don't think there's anything they can do to salvage this tremendous black eye. The people who care about this, care deeply about it," Sen. Greg Brophy, who represents a rural district on the eastern plains.
Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper has said he'd sign a magazine limit and a background-check expansion into law. But the governor said Thursday he hasn't made up his mind on the rest of the measures.
Talking to a group of high-school journalists Thursday, Hickenlooper said he's keeping his options open.
"I'm not in any way an anti-gun person," the governor said.
Kristen Wyatt contributed to this report.
Ivan Moreno can be reached at http://www.twitter.com/IvanJourno
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