Colorado caught in gun debate crossfire
When it comes to guns and gun control, Roger Binford and Dave Hoover agree on very little.
Binford, 59, a self-employed electrical contractor, owns more than half a dozen guns and feels so strongly about the right to bear arms that he recently spent part of his birthday at the state Capitol, arriving early for a debate on proposed restrictions. “I don’t think what I have in my house is anybody’s business,” Binford said.
Hoover, 51, a police sergeant who organizes an annual hunt with friends, has a frozen piece of pizza he can’t bear to throw away. His nephew, AJ Boik, saved it for his uncle before going to a midnight showing of the new Batman movie, where he was shot and killed in July along with 11 others. “What I’d like to see is some reasonable legislation,” Hoover said.
What the two men share is a close eye on their new congressman, Rep. Mike Coffman, to see what he does -- or does not do -- as lawmakers in Washington consider measures that would expand background checks for gun sales and ban assault-type weapons and high-capacity magazines, like those used at the Aurora movie theater.
After a horrific spate of mass shootings, Democrats believe the politics surrounding guns have shifted, offering the best opportunity in nearly 20 years to pass far-reaching federal legislation. Doing so, however, will require the support of at least several moderate to conservative Democrats from the South and West, where guns are deeply woven into the culture, as well as some Republicans willing to risk the wrath of the National Rifle Assn.
Few lawmakers are likely to feel as cross-pressured as Coffman. A conservative Republican who used to boast of his A+ NRA rating, he represents a redrawn district that is home to Aurora and its now-infamous theater, along with many victims. In 2014, he faces what will likely be one of the hardest-fought congressional races in the country.
“Right now it’s probably the No. 1 issue for me,” Binford said of the gun debate. “This is going to have a huge influence on how I vote,” Hoover echoed.
In many ways, Colorado perfectly captures the complex, emotion-laden political fight surrounding guns. It is, in the vernacular, more purple than red or blue -- a battleground in presidential contests and a mix of city, suburb and rural redoubt where no party dominates.
For many, guns are not feared so much as revered: a symbol of freedom and independence and the pioneer struggle to tame an unruly landscape. A day at the family shooting gallery is as natural for some Coloradans “as for Easterners taking a walk in Central Park,” said Jill Hanauer, a Democratic strategist and gun control advocate.
At the same time, the state has experienced two of the worst spasms of gun violence in the last 20 years -- Aurora and the Columbine High School massacre in 1999 -- which, as Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper noted during a recent panel discussion, “brings the debate over guns into sharp focus.”
Moved by the Aurora shooting and the December attack in Newtown, Conn., the Democratic-run state House has passed a handful of gun control measures, including a limit on ammunition magazines and a requirement for universal background checks, to be financed by gun purchasers. Hickenlooper, while publicly noncommittal, is expected to sign the measures if they pass the Democratic-controlled Senate.
For Coffman’s constituents, the Statehouse debate has taken place virtually outside their door.
His suburban district, drawn after the 2010 census, sprawls on three sides around Denver, the state capital. It is largely middle-class, with a few affluent pockets and a burgeoning Latino population, and registration is almost evenly split among Democrats, Republicans and unaffiliated voters, like the state itself.
The political landscape sharply contrasts with the safe GOP district the three-term lawmaker used to represent; it was the kind of place where Coffman could be applauded for raising the spurious charge that President Obama was not born in the United States. “I do know ... that in his heart, he’s not an American,” Coffman said, later apologizing after his remarks at a fundraiser in May were captured on tape.
Since starting to represent his new district -- he barely survived in November against a weak opponent -- Coffman has changed his position on immigration reform, endorsing a pathway to citizenship for those in the country illegally, as well as their children. On guns, however, he has been largely silent. He declined to be interviewed for this article.
Hoover, the Aurora victim’s uncle, met with his congressman during a recent trip to Washington. He said Coffman “seemed to be understanding” as Hoover argued for universal background checks and a nationwide ban on assault-style weapons and large-capacity magazines. Coffman’s response, however, “was this was something the states should deal with,” Hoover said.
A spokesman, Owen Loftus, would not say whether Coffman supported the measures passed by the Colorado House, which also include a ban on concealed guns at stadiums and college campuses. “He doesn’t get into legislation that’s pending before the Legislature,” Loftus said.
Polls taken in the district show substantial support for expanded background checks and other gun controls, and the danger for Coffman is seeming insensitive to the anger and emotions still raw more than seven months after the Aurora shooting, said Ted Trimpa, a Democratic strategist.
Coffman already has a strong opponent in Democrat Andrew Romanoff, a former speaker of the Colorado House, who supports expanded background checks and a limit on gun magazines. “The American people are expecting our electeds to do something,” Trimpa said.
But he and other Democrats hastened to warn against overreaching, noting that suspicion of government intrusion runs deep in the West among Democrats and Republicans alike, as well as some unaffiliated voters.
One of them was June -- she declined to give her last name -- who paused recently outside a crafts store near the Town Center mall, where the Aurora shooting occurred. The Democratic-leaning independent said the violence was awful, but more gun laws were not the answer.
“In reacting, you have to look at the overall problem,” said the retired phone company employee. “We have enough monitoring of our lives through government.”
Nearby, the movie theater was back in business, after reopening in January. The parking lot was half full on a snowy afternoon and posters out front advertised 13 movies playing on the 16 screens inside. Among them: “Safe Haven” and “A Good Day to Die Hard.”