Colorado Recall Elections Chill Push for New Gun Laws

Recalls of legislators create another setback for gun control backers.

September 11, 2013, 3:33 PM

Sept. 11, 2013 — -- This time was supposed to be different.

After Newtown, Aurora and Tucson, gun-control advocates saw their best chance in a generation to tighten the nation's gun laws. That's how the argument went, at least.

But election results Tuesday in Colorado may serve as stark reminders of the continued power of the gun lobby. Two Democratic state senators lost their jobs because of new gun laws they helped pass, in races that played out as testing grounds for national messaging on both sides of the debate.

In a state that's trending Democratic and has seen terrible gun violence firsthand, money flowed in on both sides over the seats of two obscure state lawmakers. The results directly undermine hopes that new gun restrictions can be political winners, and are likely to further sap what momentum was left for tighter federal gun laws at the congressional level.

"Obviously, this is not going to be helpful," said Matt Bennett, a vice president at the centrist Democratic group Third Way, which has been working closely with the White House and key senators on federal gun-control efforts. "The NRA picked their spots carefully, and they went after them hard. There's always setbacks in the gun debate -- always."

The effort to recall Colorado Senate President John Morse and state Sen. Angela Giron was designed to send a message that would be heard far beyond the Rockies. Gun-rights groups originally sought to recall five Democrats from office -- enough to flip the majority to Republicans -- but would up getting enough signatures only to target the two who were recalled Tuesday.

Both lawmakers had supported a package of new gun restrictions that, among other things, expanded background checks into private sales and banned the sale of ammunition magazines holding more than 15 rounds.

The laws were part of a flurry of post-Sandy Hook, state-level action that saw tighter restrictions in states including Connecticut, Maryland, New York and Colorado.

Winning passage in Colorado was a signature achievement, given the gun culture of the West. Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper, a possible 2016 presidential candidate, abandoned previous skepticism over new gun laws to sign the measures.

With the battle joined, national money flowed in, including $360,000 from the National Rifle Association and additional backing from the Koch brothers' Americans for Prosperity.

Liberal groups rallied to the senators' defense, with Democratic National Committee Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz calling it the "worst election you've never heard of."

New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg personally cut a $350,000 check. Bloomberg and his group, Mayors Against Illegal Guns, wanted to send a message that backing new gun laws isn't dangerous to political survival.

Giron, one of the ousted lawmakers, told The New Republic in August, "For Mayors Against Illegal Guns, if they lose even one of these seats, they might as well fold it up."

In the aftermath of the twin defeats, Bloomberg's group and its allies were explaining the results by emphasizing local factors, including vote-by-mail limitations and particulars about these two districts. Both elections were decided by a tiny sliver of voters -- Giron lost the more lopsided race, by some 4,000 votes -- and their opponents were able to flood pockets of the state with cheap ads because only two senators had their jobs on the line.

"Full speed ahead," Mark Glaze, executive director of Mayors Against Illegal Guns, told ABC News on Wednesday. "The lesson of yesterday is one we already knew: You can cherry-pick elections, spend a lot of money, and defeat and elect candidates. We will do exactly the same."

Glaze noted that the new gun laws will remain in effect in Colorado, potentially saving lives. His group -- along with the more-established Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence and the relatively new Americans for Responsible Solutions, started by former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and her husband -- were providing an effective counter to the NRA's muscle, he said.

"The NRA, for two decades, was the only player in contests," Glaze said. "No one would show up to defend legislators, to protect the public. Now, lots of states are passing background-check laws and saving lives and living to tell the tale. The country has reached the tipping point, and there is now a counterpoint to the NRA."

Still, efforts at the federal level are stalled, if not stopped entirely. In April, the Senate rejected a pared-down bill expanding background checks, despite a bipartisan compromise that was being championed by the White House.

"This was a pretty shameful day in Washington," a visibly angry President Obama said in the aftermath. "If this Congress refuses to listen to the American people ... then the real impact is going to have to come from the voters."

That's, in part, what makes Tuesday's results problematic for backers of gun control. They learned again that for all the emotions such issues can stir, people on the other side of the issue are more motivated to do something about it at the ballot box.

A Pew Research Center survey from May found that nearly half of gun owners see gun policy as an important voting issue, compared to just one-third of those who live in households without guns. Gun owners are also more likely to say they wouldn't vote for candidates who don't share their views on gun control.

Families of gun victims aren't giving up hope. They're seizing their latest lobbying opportunity next week, when a Senate panel convenes a hearing about controversial "stand your ground" laws that came to light during the George Zimmerman trial.

Third Way's Bennett said the recall results showed the importance of careful messaging. Voters in Colorado largely approve of the new background checks, he said, but the ammunition limits were easier to run campaigns against.

"People hated the magazine ban, but they really liked background checks," he said. "In the context of the congressional debate, there is some comfort there, even for folks in purplish states."

But with the congressional agenda getting more crowded by the day, the latest setback was difficult to digest for backers of gun control.

"It's been real hard to get any oxygen around here for anything," Bennett said.

ABC News' Nicole Rossoll and Joan Greve contributed to this report.

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