Earlier this week the NRA’s Institute for Legislative Action sent an alert to its Colorado members warning of a piece of legislation called the “Mass Shooting Prevention Act” that “bans many commonly used firearms Americans choose to defend themselves and their families with.” A scan of the Colorado legislative website doesn’t show that the bill has officially been filed yet, but thanks to a buddy of mine who lives in the state I was able to get my hands on a draft copy of the legislation from late December.
Based on the draft I’ve seen, it looks like Colorado lawmakers are liberally borrowing from the newly-enacted ban in Illinois, though there is one slight difference. Under the Illinois law, not only are sales of modern sporting rifles now illegal, but every gun owner who possesses an “assault weapon” as defined by the state must register it with the Illinois State Police by January of next year.
The Colorado legislation, on the other hand, doesn’t require formal registration. Instead, in order to continue to legally keep ahold of your gun after the ban takes effect, you must be able to prove that you purchased it beforehand.
DOCUMENTATION THAT A PERSON MAY USE TO PROVE OWNERSHIP INCLUDES, BUT IS NOT LIMITED TO, A RECEIPT OF PURCHASE, BILL OF SALE, PROOF OF LEGAL FIREARM TRANSFER, CREDIT CARD STATEMENT, OR A COPY OF THE FORM PROVIDED TO A LICENSED GUN DEALER BY THE UNITED STATES BUREAU OF ALCOHOL, TOBACCO, FIREARMS, AND EXPLOSIVES THAT IS FILLED OUT AT THE TIME OF PURCHASE AND RETAINED BY THE LICENSED GUN DEALER FOR AT LEAST TWENTY YEARS FOLLOWING PURCHASE OF A FIREARM. A PERSON MAY REQUEST A COPY OF SUCH FORM FROM THE LICENSED GUN DEALER AS PROOF OF OWNERSHIP. PROOF OF OWNERSHIP IS AN AFFIRMATIVE DEFENSE TO A CHARGE PURSUANT TO THIS SECTION.
Let’s acknowledge up front that there’s no way to put enough lipstick on this particular pig to make it pretty enough to pass constitutional muster. Bans on modern sporting rifles are a violation of our Second Amendment rights, plain and simple. But this attempt by Democrats to appear reasonable by theoretically grandfathering in existing owners suffers from some severe problems even for those who don’t believe the Constitution is an impediment to their gun-banning ways.
It’s true that gun stores are supposed to maintain their 4473s for twenty years, but what does that mean for the Colorado gun owners who purchased their modern sporting rifles before 2003? AR-15s have been sold since the 1960s, for crying out loud. If someone purchased an AR-15 in 1992 and no longer have the receipt for that gun, how are they supposed to prove ownership?
Then there’s the fact that the gun store where the firearm was originally sold may no longer be in business, and their records are now somewhere in the stacks of the ATF facility in West Virginia. What’s a gun owner supposed to do in that situation?
What if the gun store simply failed to keep adequate records? What if they were destroyed in a fire or flood?
If this proposed language becomes law there are going to be a lot of Coloradans who legally purchased their firearms but will have no way of documenting that fact, and will become criminals simply for maintaining possession of their modern sporting rifle.
Now here’s where it gets just downright silly, at least to me. After declaring that this law is supposedly necessary because “assault weapons in civilian hands endanger Colorado streets, stores, restaurants, places of worship, music venues, movie theaters,” and the community at large, the lawmakers threaten those who violate the law with a… class 2 misdemeanor. Under Colorado law, that means a maximum sentence of 120 days in the county jail and a fine of $750. If the gun is actually used in the commission of a violent crime, the charge can be upgraded to a class 6 felony; the lowest felony charge in the state, and one punishable by a possible 18-months in prison and a maximum fine of $100,000.
Doesn’t this seem like fairly light punishment for possessing a “battlefield weapon of war” that’s “only designed for killing”? I suspect there are a couple of political calculations involved here, including trying to thread the needle between appeasing the gun control lobby and infuriating criminal justice reformers who won’t be happy about creating a new, non-violent crime that will largely be enforced in the state’s urban (and blue) centers, with minorities likely to be disproportionately arrested and charged with violations of the law. Just as we’ve seen in Illinois, I expect a fair number of Colorado sheriffs would declare their intent not to enforce an “assault weapons” ban in their jurisdiction, especially given the minor punishment that scofflaws would receive if they were found guilty. Why waste time enforcing a useless and unconstitutional law when they’re facing much bigger problems like the flood of fentanyl into their communities.
I guess we’ll see if the strict ban/light punishment hits the sweet spot for the interest groups aligned with the Democratic majority, but if the draft legislation that I’ve seen is anything close to what (if anything) lawmakers ultimately approve the courts are going to have a field day with it. A federal judge has already halted enforcement of several local bans on “assault weapons” approved by municipalities and Boulder County last year by granting a TRO, and a statewide ban would cause far more Coloradans to suffer irreparable injury than one limited to a particular county in the Denver suburbs.
Based on the draft that I’ve seen, this legislation not only does nothing to actually prevent mass shootings, it does far too much damage to the rights of Coloradans to withstand constitutional muster. If Colorado Democrats want to violate the fundamental rights of residents by banning them from purchasing or possessing arms protected by the Second Amendment, they’ve got the numbers in the statehouse to do it. When it comes to defending their ban in court against the text, history, and tradition of the Second Amendment, however, they’re going to be shooting blanks.