Gov. John Hickenlooper signed three gun bills into law Wednesday, eight months to the day after a gunman opened fire in an Aurora movie theater and four months after he said it was time for Colorado to have a discussion about gun control.
The bill-signing took place in his office at the state Capitol, 22 miles east of where frontiersman Buffalo Bill Cody is buried, a tourist attraction in a state noted for its Wild West and independent background.
Later in the morning, as gun-rights advocates and victims' families looked on, Hickenlooper held a news conference in the west foyer to discuss measures he believed can save lives.
One bill limits ammunition magazines to 15 rounds, another requires universal background checks, and the third charges gun customers for the cost of the checks.
Colorado now joins New York as the first states to pass stricter gun laws after the December shooting at an elementary school in Newtown, Conn., ignited the national debate over guns.
"This is a fairly significant set of bills that we signed today," Hickenlooper said, adding that none of the measures take anyone's guns away.
But Republicans and Second Amendment activists were livid with the Democratic governor and the Democratic-controlled legislature, saying the bills are unenforceable and unconstitutional.
"The Democrats have just handed me a sledgehammer, and I get to walk through their china shop in the 2014 election," said Dudley Brown, director of Rocky Mountain Gun Owners.
Supporters of the gun bills point to a Denver Post poll from January. Background checks for all gun sales garnered more than 80 percent support from Coloradans, and more than 60 percent said they supported limits to ammunition magazines.
Hickenlooper repudiated Republican sentiment that the bills are some grand plan from the White House or New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who started the group Mayors Against Illegal Guns.
He said he began talking to Coloradans about background checks within a few weeks after James Holmes allegedly killed 12 and injured 58 at the Aurora theater.
"I bet I had close to 100 discussions with Colorado citizens on the Eastern Plains, western mountain towns, and all up and down the Front Range," he said. "I think I can count on both hands the number of people who had a problem with it once we sat down and talked about it."
That consensus is long gone. Hundreds of Second Amendment activists flooded to the Capitol in recent weeks to testify against all seven
"We're a libertarian, live-and-let-live kind of state," said Sen. Greg Brophy, R-Wray. "And these laws, that just ban the common everyday rights of gun owners, go way beyond the bounds of what people in Colorado think is normal."
But others hailed the bills' passage.
Sandy and Lonnie Phillips,whose 24-year-old daughter, Jessica Ghawi, died in the Aurora theater shooting, traveled from San Antonio to see Hickenlooper sign the bills into law.
"It's a good day," Sandy said. "The state of Colorado is making great strides to save lives. Hopefully, other states will follow in this state's footsteps."
Megan Sullivan's older brother, Alex, was killed in the theater while celebrating his 27th birthday.
"My brother was killed by a person with a hundred-round magazine," she said. "He didn't have a chance."
Sullivan also referred to the Tucson mass shooting where Congresswoman Gabby Giffords was seriously injured and the gunman was tackled while switching out a large-capacity magazine.
"If it's three seconds, it's three seconds," Sullivan said. "My brother didn't have three seconds. But now other Coloradans could have that time to intervene if a gunman were shooting."
Hickenlooper made the same point.
"In certain circumstances, someone bent on destruction, even if they're slowed just for a number of seconds, that allows others to escape," he said.
Hickenlooper said limiting magazines is an "inconvenience" for law-abiding gun owners, adding, "We don't deny that. We regret that."
The owner of Colorado's largest producer of ammunition magazines, Erie-based Magpul, already had plans to leave the state should the bill become law. Magpul officials have said the move will cost hundreds of jobs and upward of $85 million in potential spending this year.
"Our moving efforts are underway. It's going to be a phased approach, and until the move is complete, we're going to continue manufacturing magazines in Colorado," said Doug Smith, Magpul's chief operating officer. "Within the next 30 days, we will manufacture our first magazine outside the state of Colorado."
Smith noted he will meet with economic developers from Nebraska, Texas and Wyoming in the coming weeks and the company is likely to have multiple locations in the future.
"This ordeal has taught us to be more diverse geographically," Smith said.
Hickenlooper also said he has instructed the Colorado Department of Public Safety to consult with the Office of the Attorney General to draft and issue to law enforcement agencies "technical guidance on how the law should be interpreted and enforced."
He said the intent of the magazine bill was never to turn law-abiding citizens into criminals, but questions have arisen, such as on provisions regarding constant possession of magazines.
As for background checks, Hickenlooper pointed out that last year, some 2,000 people who underwent a background check in Colorado were denied the right to buy a firearms, either because of a criminal record, an outstanding warrant, a restraining order or some other reason.
"People would say to me, 'Well, criminals aren't stupid. They're not going to sign up for background checks.' It turns out many criminals are stupid," he said.
Hickenlooper also referred to other bills the Democratic-controlled legislature has passed this session, including civil unions for same-sex couples and in-state tuition for illegal immigrant students.
"Each of these bills is about community in some way," he said. "This is an effort to build a better community in Colorado."
Lynn Bartels: 303-954-5327, email@example.com or twitter.com/lynn_bartels
Signed into law
HB 1224: Limits ammunition magazines to 15 rounds
HB 1228: Charges gun buyers for the cost of the checks
HB 1229: Expands background checks for gun purchases