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DENVER (AP) — After a no-holds-barred White House push for sweeping gun control legislation across the country, Democrats have racked up only one victory outside the ideologically friendly confines of the northeast.
It is a big one: Colorado's moderate Democratic governor Wednesday will sign landmark bills to require universal background checks and limit magazine capacity in this bellwether swing state. But the White House's package is running into trouble in Congress and, even in liberal Washington state, gun control couldn't get out of the statehouse. Gun control advocates are hoping for more victories to add to Colorado, but the clock is ticking as state legislatures start to wrap up business.
Mark Glaze, director of Mayors Against Illegal Guns, acknowledged in an interview Tuesday that his side has only won in a couple of states so far. He said that was because gun rights groups have strong presences at most statehouses. "You don't turn that around in three months," he said, adding that he is trying to reassure lawmakers they can pass gun restrictions without trampling on the Second Amendment. "But we will turn it around, and Colorado is exhibit A."
After 20 children and six adults were killed in the Dec. 14 massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School, President Barack Obama called for more gun control measures, and gun control activists across the country pushed to expand laws regulating firearms, hoping to capitalize on the national revulsion to the attack in Newtown, Conn.
But it remains unclear whether the centerpiece of Obama's federal package — universal background checks on anyone who buys guns — will pass the Democrat-controlled Senate, let alone the Republican-controlled House. Though a bipartisan deal on background checks still could emerge in the Senate, Democrats there on Tuesday dropped a proposed assault weapons ban from their gun legislation, a sign it was destined to fail.
Earlier this month, Washington state's Democrat-controlled House failed to advance a universal background check bill there. Democrats are struggling to advance background check bills in Minnesota and Oregon, too. A bill to require background checks at gun shows died in the Democrat-controlled New Mexico legislature this month.
Richard Feldman of the Independent Firearms Owners Association said he's not surprised that politicians are balking, despite polls showing overwhelming support for tougher gun restrictions like universal background checks or limits on the capacity of magazines. "The people say, 'Oh yeah, ban it -- my ox isn't getting gored,'" Feldman said. "But the people who are affected or feel affected -- those are the ones you have to worry about. They will vote for you or against you based on this."
Colorado will be the test case of that political theory. An estimated one-third of households in this state have a firearm but the state has trended sharply Democratic in recent years, powered by coastal transplants, moderate suburban women voters and a growing Hispanic population. Democrats won back the statehouse in November. They approved universal background checks and a bill preventing gun magazines from holding more than 15 bullets over strenuous Republican opposition.
About 1,000 protesters swarmed the state capitol at the peak of the debate, which featured testimony by gun control advocate Mark Kelly, husband of former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, D-Arizona, who was shot by a mentally ill gunman in 2011. Vice President Joe Biden called Colorado Democrats and urged them to approve the package, saying it would have potent symbolism in a western swing state.
Gov. John Hickenlooper, a moderate who once questioned whether increased gun control would have stopped July's Aurora movie theater massacre, infuriated Republicans when he said he would sign the legislation. Republicans have consistently accused Democrats of being driven by gun control advocate and New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg and other coastal liberals.
"He's more interested in appeasing Bloomberg and East Coast Democrats than he is Colorado," Republican State Sen. Greg Brophy said of Hickenlooper, whom he may challenge in next year's election.
Laura Chapin, a Democratic strategist working for a local gun control coalition, disagrees. "The same demographic that determines elections here, that elected Barack Obama, that elected John Hickenlooper, are what's driving this debate," she said. "The voices that are the loudest (in protest) are not the ones that determine elections here."
Colorado became the second state to adopt major gun law changes after New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo in January signed what was touted as the nation's toughest gun law, broadening the definition of banned assault weapons and increasing regulations on gun permit holders. Lawmakers in New Jersey, Maryland, Illinois and Connecticut are also pushing gun control legislation. California's Democratic legislature is likely to send new regulations to Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown in the coming months. Two months or more remain in several legislative sessions.
Brian Malte, of the Brady Campaign Against Gun Violence, said that even in places where gun control has stalled, just getting legislative committees to vote on bills is a victory after years of stasis. "It's not always that bills get passed, it's that they move in places you don't expect," Malte said. "It's a marathon, not a sprint."
In Minnesota, Democrats have already dropped plans to ban assault weapons and high-capacity magazines and are struggling to get universal background checks out of the state legislature. Biden last week called lawmakers there to encourage action and rally dispirited Democrats.
"I'm at a loss to understand what is objectionable about extending that to other gun sellers and actually putting them on the same playing field with licensed gun dealers who are required to do background checks," Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton said.
Democrats withdrew proposals to ban assault weapons and high-capacity magazines in Oregon but are still considering legislation to ban firearms in the state capitol and schools that don't explicitly allow them, as well as to expand background checks. However, Democratic leaders there have said gun control is not a top priority.
In Colorado, Republicans say the battle is just starting. They are pushing recalls against one rural Democrat who voted for the gun bills, mulling a ballot measure to repeal them, considering lawsuits to challenge their constitutionality and vowing an all-out push to take back the legislature in 2014. "I'm telling you, they have overreached, and there are going to be electoral consequences," Brophy said.
Chapin argued that gun rights groups don't understand the realities of a world where gun massacres are intruding into the suburbs. "The geography of gun tragedy has changed," she said. "When you've got suburban moms who are scared to send their kids to schools or movie theaters, this is not just happening somewhere else anymore."
Associated Press reporters Jonathan Cooper in Salem, Ore.; Brian Bakst and Kyle Potter in St. Paul, Minn.; Barry Massey in Santa Fe, NM; and Kristen Wyatt in Denver; contributed to this report.
Follow Nicholas Riccardi on Twitter at https://twitter.com/NickRiccardi and Ivan Moreno at https://twitter.com/IvanJourno.