54 Colorado sheriffs suing to block two new state gun control laws

DENVER - A group of 54 Colorado sheriffs say recently passed state gun control laws are unconstitutional and they plan to file a federal lawsuit Friday to block them.

At a Friday news conference in Denver, sheriffs, disabled individuals and a woman's group said two new laws requiring universal background checks for gun buyers and restricting the size of high-capacity magazines violate the Second Amendment right to bear arms and the Fourteenth Amendment's prohibition against states denying individuals due process and equal protection under the law.

The laws were passed earlier this year in response to mass shootings at an Aurora movie theater and at a school in Connecticut.

The right-leaning Independence Institute says 54 of the Colorado's 62 sheriffs are joining the lawsuit, along with other gun-rights activists who oppose the laws.

"This lawsuit is for your rights and for your safety," Weld County Sheriff John Cooke said. "These bills do absolutely nothing to make Colorado a safer place to live, to work, to play or to raise a family. Instead these misguided, unconstitutional bills will have the opposite effect because they greatly restrict the right of decent, law-abiding citizens to defend themselves, their families and their homes."

"This isn't good public policy. These are really awful bills. They are unenforceable and encourage disrespect for the law," Cooke added.

However, Colorado Association of Chiefs of Police, issued this statement backing the gun control laws:

"The Colorado Association of Chiefs of Police supported the gun safety legislation which was passed by the Colorado General Assembly and signed into law by the Governor.  We believe the bills were common-sense approaches to protecting our citizens and our law enforcement officers from those seeking to cause harm with guns, while not taking guns from law abiding citizens in any way. Now that the constitutionality of these statutes is being questioned in a lawsuit, we will await and will respect the guidance of the courts."

At the new conference, Katherine Whitney, of the group Women for Concealed Carry, said the new laws violate a woman's constitutional right to self-defense. She cited statistics showing an increasing  number of "forcible rapes" in Colorado, including 2,236 rapes reported to authorities in 2012.

Whitney said the law prohibiting the sale of ammunition magazines that hold more than 15 rounds also bans magazines with removable baseplates or end caps that could be expanded. She said it effectively bans a majority of gun magazines that have the expandable feature.

"Banning the ordinary magazines women use every day for lawful self-defense makes our handguns useless and it makes us more vulnerable to violent crime," Whitney said. "For the sake of our lives and the lives of our young children, we ask the court to issue injunctions against the enforcement of these dangerous bills."

Dylan Harrell, a disabled gun enthusiast, said one law's restrictions on transferring high-capacity magazines to other people "makes it against the law for me to even seek assistance with handling of my firearms when I need to transfer into or out of my wheelchair."

Some concerns about the law prohibiting the sale, transfer and possessing of large-capacity ammunition magazines might be eased by a legal opinion released Friday by Colorado Attorney General John Suthers and Department of Public Safety Executive Director James Davis. Gov. John Hickenlooper instructed the officials to provide the technical guidance on how law enforcement agencies should interpret and enforce the law.

Just because a magazine has a "removable baseplate" does not mean it falls under the law's definition of a large-capacity magazine "designed to be readily converted to accept more than 15 rounds of ammunition," the guidance says.

"On many magazines, that [removable baseplate] design feature is included to specifically to permit cleaning and maintenance," the opinion says. "Of course, a magazine whose baseplate is replaced with one that does, in fact, allow the magazine to accept more than 15 rounds would be a 'large-capacity magazine' under House Bill 1224."  

So, just having a magazine with the potential to be expanded to hold more than 15 rounds isn't deemed a violation of the law.   

The law also has a "grandfather" clause that allows someone who owns a magazine that holds more than 15 rounds before the law takes effect on July 1 to legally keep it, as long as the owner "maintains continuous possession" of it.

The attorney general's guidance says that people don't have to worry if another person briefly takes physical custody of their grandfathered high-capacity magazine -- say "a gunsmith, hunting partner or acquaintance at a shooting range" -- as along as the other person "remains in the owner's physical presence."

But victims of gun violence said they didn't understand why law enforcement officials were opposing efforts to prevent violent crime.

"As a parent who lost my son Alex at the Aurora theater shooting, I ask these people to put themselves in my place," said Tom Sullivan, who son was killed in the Aurora theater shooting. "Imagine going around to hospitals trying to find your son, only to hear that he's been shot dead and is lying on the floor of the theater. And then having to tell that to his mom and his sister, that he went to a movie and never came home.

"I do not understand why these politicians are picking guns over people, and why they want to make easier for criminals to get guns and for other families to go through what we did," Sullivan added.

Dave Hoover, a Lakewood police officer whose nephew, AJ Boik, was gunned down in the theater shooting, said the sheriffs are ignoring the will of the people.

"As someone whose family has been affected by gun violence and someone who has worked in law enforcement for many years, it is disappointing to see the majority of Sheriffs in this state turn gun safety and the safety of families and citizens of this state into a political issue," Hoover said in a statement. "These laws are supported by a majority of Coloradans because they protect public safety while respecting responsible gun ownership. Let's encourage the Sheriffs to focus on public safety and enforce the laws they have sworn to uphold, instead of playing politics."

The gun-control group, Colorado Ceasefire, accused the sheriffs of "marching to the drumbeat of the gun industry to overturn laws designed to improve community safety."

"By putting their energies into this lawsuit, the sheriffs are ignoring the voices of those they are sworn to protect," the group said in a statement.

"Last year, over 7,300 gun purchases were stopped (by background checks) in Colorado. But those denied persons were able to go elsewhere, online, a classified ad, or friend of a friend, and quickly buy a firearm. No questions asked. Is this what the sheriffs consider good public safety policy?" said the group, referring to life before the new state law tightened background check loopholes. "Have the sheriffs not had enough of gun violence?  How many schools, theaters and city streets do we need turned into slaughterhouses before they 'get it'?"