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Colorado Communities Grapple With How to Address Gun Violence

February 18, 2013 at 12:00 AM EST
How is the community of Aurora, Colo. -- target of a mass shooting last July -- coping with and reacting to the national debate stirred by Newtown? How is Colorado processing the recommendations for reducing violence proposed by the Biden task force? Megan Verlee of Colorado Public Radio reports.
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GWEN IFILL: More on “After Newtown.”

As we learned earlier, legislation designed to curb gun violence is being hotly debated here in Washington, and in some statehouses and city halls around the country. Today, the action was in Colorado, the site of past mass shootings in Aurora and Columbine.

Tonight, as part of the PBS weeklong focus on “After Newtown,” we look at how communities there are reacting to all this.

Special correspondent Megan Verlee from Colorado Public Radio has our report.

JESSICA WATTS, Cousin of Shooting Victim: Such an amazing guy.

MEGAN VERLEE: Jessica Watts has known firsthand the tragedy of gun violence. Last July, her cousin was gunned down in the Aurora theater shooting that killed 11 others. But that wasn’t the first random shooting to touch her life.

In 1999, her husband, a student at Columbine High School, had to flee as 12 classmates and one teacher were killed by two students with rifles. Then, in 2006, a 16-year-old family friend was killed in an attack by a gunman at a high school in the small mountain town of Bailey, just west of Denver.

JESSICA WATTS: She had just turned 16.

MEGAN VERLEE: Mementos of this violence are scattered around her house and the metro area.

JESSICA WATTS: There’s always a reminder in this city where so much tragedy has happened.

MEGAN VERLEE: Watts said never in her life had she really thought about gun policy or becoming politically involved. But the Aurora shooting combined with the massacre in Newtown, Conn., spurred her to action.

JESSICA WATTS: That was something positive to put my mind and energy towards, so that I wasn’t, you know, necessarily I guess drowning in sorrow all the time.

MEGAN VERLEE: These days, Watts is advocating for gun control bills at both the federal and state level.

JESSICA WATTS: Gun violence is destroying our families and communities, taking our loved ones, and we have had enough.

MEGAN VERLEE: Earlier this month, she was there at the Colorado Statehouse when Democrats unveiled a broad package of gun bills. Many of the proposals are familiar from the federal gun debate, a ban on high-capacity ammunition magazines, universal backgrounds checks, and more emphasis on getting mental health warnings into the background check system.

REP. RHONDA FIELDS, D-Colo.: I’m here to tell you now that enough is enough, and the time is now.

MEGAN VERLEE: State Rep. Rhonda Fields is one of the lead sponsors of the bills. Like Watts, her political activism was spurred by a personal connection to violence. Seven years ago, her son was gunned down in the streets of Aurora. Then, this summer, she got a middle-of-the-night call about the mass shooting in her district.

JESSICA WATTS: We went into this grief mode, in this disbelief mode. So, the initial I would say month was, you know, attending memorial services and dealing with the loss. And then shortly after that, when all the cameras left, that’s when the real work began in reference to, what can we do?

MEGAN VERLEE: While Fields supports all of the gun control measures, she says extending background checks to private sales is perhaps the most important.

RHONDA FIELDS: If we can keep the guns out of the hands of criminals, I think that’s where we can make our greatest impact. And with the background check, felons won’t be able to get access to a gun from a private seller. If you’re mentally ill or if you are a domestic abuser, you will not have access to a gun unless you take a CBI check. So, I think it closes that loophole. And I think that’s a good thing.

MEGAN VERLEE: Democrats control both chambers of Colorado’s state legislature and the governor’s office. So their proposals face better odds than President Obama’s do in Congress. But with the ink still wet on the bill drafts, the gun control debate has switched into overdrive in Colorado.

MEGAN VERLEE: It’s been more than a decade since Colorado legislators passed any new restrictions on gun ownership. Even the Columbine attack failed to provoke new policies. And the state’s gun rights groups are working to make sure it stays that way

DUDLEY BROWN, Rocky Mountain Gun Owners: We’re going to oppose these. And we’re going to work very hard to defeat them all.

MEGAN VERLEE: Dudley Brown heads the group Rocky Mountain Gun Owners

DUDLEY BROWN: I think the question for the Democrat caucus is are you really ready to stake the 2014 elections on the gun issue? Because the Democrat Party has done that before and paid the price with the ’94 Congress, and they’re going to pay the price again.

MEGAN VERLEE: Brown says his numbers are calling and mailing lawmakers. Even Republicans are feeling the heat.

SEN. KEVIN LUNDBERG, R-Colo.: Nationally, it’s a big issue. And here in Colorado, we have the Aurora shooting, which certainly brought up the attention for everyone.

MEGAN VERLEE: Republicans like state Sen. Kevin Lundberg have their own proposals. They have introduced bills to pressure businesses into allowing concealed weapons on their property and to let some teachers carry guns.

KEVIN LUNDBERG: If somebody comes in armed intending on harm and starts to pull the trigger, somebody needs to be able to stop them now. Commendable at the Aurora shooting that the police were there in a matter of a minute or two.

But where we need to fix it, it’s before the trigger is pulled. It’s the deterrence that occurs when the bad guy knows there are good guys probably in that room that can defend and stop any — you know, any assault that occurs.

MEGAN VERLEE: For those who make a living from the firearms business, the most troubling proposals are the ones that try to ban certain weapons or size of magazines.

Richard Taylor manages the Firing Line Shooting Range and Gun Shop in Aurora, located less than a mile from last summer’s theater attack. He says the proposed legislation at both the federal and state level will be both intrusive and ineffective.

RICHARD TAYLOR, Firing Line Gun Shop: Just a feel-good, knee-jerk reaction to some of these awful incidents that have happened. Is it going to stop anything from happening? Absolutely not. The only people that are really going to be affected by any of this legislation are law-abiding citizens. The criminals don’t care already. So, why is it going to affect them? It’s not.

MEGAN VERLEE: If there is any middle ground in the gun legislation debate, it may be over how to prevent severely mentally ill persons from obtaining guns.

RICHARD TAYLOR: The one thing that everybody has been missing about on the finally they have started to talk about since Newtown is the mental health issue and aspect of it. Nearly all of these unfortunate incidents, there have been indications and signs that the person who has actually perpetrated these has been under pressure, has been, you know, mentally affected in some way. And I think that’s the major thing that we need to look at.

MEGAN VERLEE: But not everyone agrees. State Sen. Lundberg says that with studies showing that nearly 50 percent of Americans at some point seek mental health treatment, he worries restrictions may be overly broad.

KEVIN LUNDBERG: When it comes to the mental health part, nobody denies that there needs to be a proper system for helping people who really need the help.

But then the question is, where is that line where it crosses over where everybody ends up on some sort of list and somehow we all become mentally deficient somehow by their standards? Well, I’m sorry. That doesn’t fit.

CODY BURROWS, Gun Owner: It’s a knock-off. It’s an AK-47 variant of what is called a Dragunov sniper rifle.

MEGAN VERLEE: Aurora resident and gun collector Cody Burrows says he has another middle ground idea: License gun owners.

CODY BURROWS: Really, what I think it comes down to is that if you have to have a license to drive and you have to have a license to even catch a fish, it’s not too much to ask that you have a license to carry a gun.

MEGAN VERLEE: He’s trying to get politicians to focus on gun owners, not on guns. Essentially, he wants to extend the concealed-carry permit system, where people have to take a class and pass a test, with more training required for higher-powered weapons. He says it avoids one of the problems that the NRA complains about: gun registration.

CODY BURROWS: You’re not registering your ammo. You’re not registering your gun. You’re not giving up any serial numbers. I could be buying 1,000 guns. It doesn’t matter, because the government shouldn’t know what guns — who has what guns and where.

MEGAN VERLEE: While Burrows is trying to get his sweeping idea in front of policy-makers, one man who already has their ear has a much simpler idea.

POLICE CHIEF DAN OATES, Aurora, Colo.: I think a lot more can be done to enforce existing gun laws.

MEGAN VERLEE: Aurora Police Chief Daniel Oates became the city’s public face in the days after theater attack. At a recent meeting with President Obama and Attorney General Eric Holder, he pushed federal prosecutors to get tougher on felons caught with guns and so-called straw purchasers who buy them the guns in the first place.

DAN OATES: The resources that the Department of Justice puts those towards prosecutions at this time are nowhere near as rigorous as we would like. Nearly all our street violence in the Denver-Aurora metro area involves folks who already have felony convictions and have guns in their possession that they shouldn’t have. If there was more certainty of punishment for violating that federal gun law, there would be likely less of those offenses.

MEGAN VERLEE: In the divisive atmosphere of the gun debate, that may be one of the easiest tasks to accomplish. Both sides at the federal and state level say they know the coming months won’t be easy, but they will be critical.

KEVIN LUNDBERG: This is an issue people care about because it has to do with their rights. It has to do with their safety. It has to do with the overall peace in our communities. People care very deeply about all of those things, and rightly so.

RHONDA FIELDS: There’s this fear that if you go after gun legislation or gun reform or if you go after the NRA, that it’s going to mean that you will get primaried in an election or they’re going to force people not to vote for you. So, I think that’s a false fear, because I think to be a legislator, it takes bold and courageous leadership. And we should do things not based on public or special interest. We should do things that’s right for our community.

MEGAN VERLEE: Colorado Democrats are moving their bills quickly. Final action is expected in the next week or two.

GWEN IFILL: As concealed-carry, background check and magazine limit bills make their way through state houses in Colorado, Arkansas and elsewhere, PBS’s special “After Newtown” coverage continues tomorrow. Join us for a report from Jeffrey Brown on the concerns about the possible impact of ever-more violent video games. You can watch a sneak preview on our Web site.

And Tuesday night, in prime time on PBS, two documentaries. “Guns in America” explores the nation’s long history of firearms, from the earliest settlers to today’s political battle. Plus, “Raising Adam Lanza” on “Frontline” investigates the Newtown gunman, his mother and the town he changed forever.