COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. — Snug against the Rockies, this conservative bastion is home to the U.S. Air Force Academy, Pikes Peak, scores of evangelical churches and soon, perhaps, the most significant gun control fight in the country.
Unless a judge steps in, John Morse, the Democratic president of the Colorado Senate, faces an unprecedented recall attempt arising from the sweeping gun laws passed after the school massacre in Newtown, Conn. Morse, a former police chief, calls the legislation an act of sublime leadership and said that being tossed from office, if it happens, is worth the price.
"Tell me that you get 20 6-year-olds shot in the face with a semiautomatic assault rifle ... and that your elected officials should say, 'Hmm'" — he clucked his tongue — '"I'm really sorry that happened. I'm not going to do anything about it.' I mean, if you're not going to lead in those kinds of moments, why are you in this role?"
Critics say the laws, which raised gun fees, banned the sale of high-capacity magazines and established universal background checks, were an assault on fundamental freedoms that Morse rammed through in a flagrant show of government arrogance. The bills were signed by Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper, who faces reelection next year but is in far better shape politically than Morse, who barely won a second term.
With the gun control debate at a seeming impasse in Congress, both sides agree the ouster of the Democratic leader would resonate far beyond this 6,000-foot-high metropolis, about an hour's drive south of the Capitol in Denver. The election, if challenges are surmounted, would occur between late August and early November.
"If you can take out the Senate president in Colorado," Morse said, seated in his small office just off the chamber, "then, arguably, you can take out any legislator anywhere in the country. And so I do think it would have a chilling effect."
Laura Carno, whose organization helped bankroll the petition drive against Morse, agreed, saying a recall would serve notice to any wavering lawmaker nationwide who doubts the power and resolve of the gun rights movement. "What's at stake in this recall election is the definition of the relationship between citizens and their government officials," Carno said. "We hire you. We can fire you."
Originally, opponents took after four Democratic backers of the gun laws, but efforts against two of them fizzled. Activists have also qualified petitions to recall state Sen. Angela Giron, a freshman from Pueblo; Morse, though, is by far the bigger target.
Colorado, where the mountains meet the plains, has long been at the center of the national debate over guns, gun violence and gun safety.
State lawmakers passed a number of restrictions after the 1999 killings at Columbine High School. But firearms remain a much-revered part of Colorado culture, and the restrictions, including a crackdown on gun show sales, went only so far.
The issue remained largely dormant until the mass shooting last summer at an Aurora, Colo., movie theater and the December killings of 20 children and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut. Polls afterward showed strong support for tougher gun laws, and Democrats, who won control of the statehouse in November, were eager to act.
They met fierce resistance. Republicans were nearly unanimous in opposition. Hundreds of protesters swarmed the Capitol; others drove in circles around the building, car horns blaring. Overhead, a small plane pulled a banner: "Hick," it addressed the governor, "Do Not Take Our Guns."
Opponents quickly focused on Morse, even though term limits mean he can't run again in 2014. His leadership role was one reason. Also, just 7,178 valid signatures were required to force a recall, or 25% of the votes cast in his district in 2010, the fewest signatures needed for the four lawmakers targeted.
Organizers took up sentry outside grocery stores and retail shops and established roadside "drive and sign" events to collect signatures. Backers gave away a 9-millimeter pistol, ammunition and other gun-related prizes to reward volunteers. The National Rifle Assn. helped out with email, phone banks and a mailer. Perhaps most important, organizers hired a professional signature-gathering firm to supplement the grass-roots effort. The extent of involvement by outside interests is a subject of dispute; contributors to Carno's campaign organization remain anonymous under tax law.
Among those approached with a recall petition was Morse, during a quick stop at a supermarket. "Devil incarnate, but couldn't pick him out of a lineup," he scoffed. (He did not sign.)
Morse, 58, is compactly built with a hank of white hair and a penchant to give voice, literally, to both sides of the gun debate, quoting his critics then responding in a tone of sweet reason. He is blunt-spoken, calling his opponents idiots who lied, cheated and stole to force a recall.
"If I have to get in a slugfest, I get in a slugfest. I'm going to do the best I can not to," he said of attempts to disqualify the recall petitions and block the effort in court. "If I've exhausted all my other options, then slugfest it is."
His directness is part of his appeal, supporters say, even if it does not always serve him well. Morse is not a career politician or, in the words of one ally, "some pinko professor from Colorado College." He is a relative centrist whose law enforcement background helped with an electorate split roughly three ways among Democrats, Republicans and unaffiliated voters.
His district, taking in less affluent parts of Colorado Springs and the liberal enclave of Manitou Springs, was drawn expressly to give Democrats a shot at winning in staunchly conservative El Paso County. Even then it's been a fight; Morse, who has worked as an accountant and paramedic as well as police chief in a nearby community, won reelection by a mere 340 votes.
Most political calculations go out the window, however, in the recall effort, the first against a state legislator to qualify since Colorado adopted the procedure more than a century ago. No one is certain who's a likely voter, though the intensity level, long a hallmark of the gun rights movement, would appear to favor Morse's opponents.
National groups are closely watching developments — quietly, lest they provoke a backlash — and will probably invest considerable sums if the recall makes the ballot.
Strategists for the two major parties also view the election as a referendum of sorts, as Colorado, once part of the Republican Party's Rocky Mountains stronghold, has turned increasingly competitive and, lately, friendlier to Democrats.
"Gun control ... is the catalyst for interests who believe Democrats have overreached," said Mike Stratton, a veteran Democratic campaign consultant, who is watching from the sidelines. "If voters say, 'Enough's enough, you've gone too far,' that's going to be a marker where the state is at."