Colorado recall election is a referendum on guns


COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. — After 30 minutes of praise to God and several rollicking, hand-clapping hymns, John Morse stepped to the glass pulpit and offered a prayer of his own.

“We need you to reach down deep,” Morse, the state Senate president, told about 100 worshipers seated Sunday beneath a vaulted ceiling at Grace Be Unto You Outreach Church. “I need you not to just support me,” he said, slowing down to emphasize each word. “I need you to vote no.”

Last winter, Morse helped push through the Legislature a sweeping package of gun laws in response to the December massacre at Connecticut’s Sandy Hook Elementary School. Included was a limit on ammunition clips like one used in the July 2012 theater shootings in the Denver suburb of Aurora. State Sen. Angela Giron, a fellow Democrat, was among those who supported the package.


Now the two face the first recall election in Colorado history, with voters in Colorado Springs and Pueblo, about 45 freeway miles apart, deciding their fate Tuesday. The “no” votes Morse urged would salvage their careers.

It is more than a vote on local representation. The election has become a nationally watched referendum on guns, a fight between the National Rifle Assn. and its allies and New York Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg and other gun control advocates. Collectively, they have poured millions of dollars into the two-month campaign.

Both sides expect the results to be close and closely heeded, either frightening lawmakers across the country from passing further gun restrictions or emboldening them to emulate Colorado’s crackdown.

“In terms of the math, it’s like a pebble,” said Tom Cronin, a professor at Colorado College and author of a book on recall campaigns, noting that only a fraction of the state’s 3.5 million registered voters can cast ballots. “But it’s a pebble that will send a wide message.”

Colorado is a place that reflects the country’s often-conflicted views on guns. Many here embrace the state’s Old West heritage and view gun ownership as a cherished part of that tradition. But the state has also experienced two of the worst episodes of gun violence in recent U.S. history, the Aurora shootings and the 1999 killings at Columbine High School.

The laws passed by Morse and his fellow Democrats raised gun fees, limited gun magazines to 15 rounds and established universal background checks, to be paid for by the gun purchaser.


Opponents, who called the legislation a vast overreach and accused Morse of railroading it through the Legislature, started the recall effort even before Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper affixed his signature. They originally targeted four legislators but turned in only enough valid signatures to put two on the ballot.

Morse, a former police chief, is the rare elected Democrat in conservative-leaning Colorado Springs, home to the U.S. Air Force Academy, the Focus on the Family religious organization and scores of evangelical churches. His district was drawn specifically to give a Democrat a shot at winning a Senate seat, and even then Morse barely eked through his last election.

He is counting on a strong turnout by Latino and African American voters, which explained his presence at Sunday’s gathering of black ministers and his plea to their congregants, who responded with “amens” to the call for tougher gun laws.

Giron, the other targeted legislator, represents a more solidly Democratic district in Pueblo, a major steel town for most of its history, with a vestigial union presence and a large and growing Latino population.

The influence of outsiders, who have contributed most of the money to both sides, has been a major theme of the recall campaign, waged in a relentless barrage of TV ads, phone calls and door-to-door canvassing.

Recall proponents accuse Morse of “taking his marching orders” from the “billionaire playboy” Bloomberg, whose Mayors Against Illegal Guns group has pushed for stricter gun laws nationwide. Recall opponents say the NRA is trying to nab a pair of legislative seats it couldn’t win in a regular election. (Morse and Giron each have Republican opponents running to replace them. A twin loss would leave Democrats with just a single-seat majority in the state Senate.)


Although guns were the primary motivation behind the recall, the campaign has ranged far afield, as interest groups and major donors jumped in, among them Los Angeles philanthropist Eli Broad from the left and businessmen David and Charles Koch from the right.

Taxes, abortion, healthcare, renewable energy, the size of government and the treatment of military veterans have all been raised as issues in the melee.

“At this point, guns almost seem like an afterthought,” said Cronin, a decades-long student of politics who lives in Morse’s district and said he had gotten more political mailings in this election than in any other he could remember.

At recall headquarters Monday afternoon, volunteers in a warren of small offices pecked away at their cellphones, working their way down voter lists.

“It looks like it’s going to be a close election,” volunteer Clay Turner said to one answering machine, noting that polls will be open for 12 hours starting at 7 a.m. “Please get out. Every vote counts.”

Opponents have criticized the estimated $500,000 cost of the special election, noting that both lawmakers are near the end of their terms. Giron faces reelection in 2014. Even if Morse survives Tuesday, he will be termed out after next year.


Under Colorado law, each is entitled to a modest reimbursement if the recall fails. Both have said no thank you.