Colorado Springs — Despite the media’s insistence that the Colorado recalls were the first skirmish in a new proxy war between the National Rifle Association and New York mayor Michael Bloomberg, the simple truth is that Tuesday’s stunning elections were prompted and won by forces on the ground. At the Stargazers Theatre last night, I sat with those forces as a famous victory unfolded. Speaking after Senator Morse conceded, the recall’s founder, Tim Knight, told the crowd that “you must own your freedom in order to protect and pass it on to your children.” He has spent the last few months doing just that.
Guns are a notoriously touchy subject in America — a supercharged third rail, if you will. But so too is the notion of accountability. The country was founded, after all, by men with guns grumbling about the nature of their political representation. It was in this proud tradition that the disgruntled banded together in Colorado to try to recall two sitting state senators who had not just voted to pass new restrictions on the right to keep and bear arms, but had steadfastly refused to listen to the opposition. The new gun laws, locals in both Colorado Springs and Pueblo told me repeatedly, were “the straw that broke the camel’s back.” Their more fundamental message: “Listen to me, goddamnit!”
Recall advocates in Colorado Springs were lucky that John Morse elected to make himself unpopular with almost every conceivable group. “There’s something for everyone with John Morse,” Luke Wagner of the Basic Freedom Defense Fund told me. Indeed. Morse irritated not just gun owners, but also the legalize-marijuana movement, rural Coloradans, independent taxpayers, and women’s advocacy groups. To his surprise, Morse’s imperious behavior awoke a parade of formerly apolitical Coloradans, many of whom were dismayed by the manner in which they had been treated by a group of politicians who had, in the words of Victor Head, the 29-year-old plumber and political novice who beat Michael Bloomberg’s machine, “made their minds up already.”
In Pueblo, Angela Giron could perhaps have avoided her own downfall. Despite her unpopular vote to expand federal background checks to all private sales and to limit magazines to 15 rounds, had she condescended to listen to her constituents she might never have had to face a recall. Instead, she closed doors in the faces of Victor Head and his friends. Now, Giron and Morse are gone. When in the course of human events, and all that jazz . . .
The national implications of this are significant. When Bill Clinton signed the 1994 “assault weapons” ban, he didn’t just lose the House, he also lost the argument for 20 years. Colorado was supposed to be the blueprint for other “purple” states. If gun control could be done here, then why not in Pennsylvania, or Nevada — or even Texas? Now, it will presumably be difficult to convince state legislatures in other parts of the country to touch the question of guns. Privately, defenders of Morse have shared with me that, while they wanted their man to win, they wish he hadn’t put the Democratic party in this position. This is wise. Gun control rarely works out well for the party.
What the voters’ decision didn’t do was to repeal the laws that spurred the recall. Those remain on the books, although the legislature is now unlikely to add to them in a hurry. (Democrats now enjoy only a one-vote advantage in the senate.) Meanwhile, the measures are subject to a legal challenge initiated by the 55 of the state’s 64 elected sheriffs and filed by the Independence Institute, a local conservative think tank. Conservatives quietly hope that the laws will eventually find themselves being judged by the Supreme Court.