After the general election of 2012 sent Democratic majorities to both houses of the state legislature for the first time in a generation, politics in Colorado took a dramatically leftward turn. Before November of last year, Governor John Hickenlooper felt obligated to promise that he would sign no new anti-gun legislation, holding to his word even in the heated aftermath of a horrific shooting that was perpetrated in his own state; after November, Hickenlooper cheerfully signed a package of strict anti-gun bills in response to a shooting 1,800 miles away. Thus did Colorado come to require state background checks for all private sales, to ban concealed-carry on college campuses, and — worst of all — to limit the size of legal magazines to 15 rounds. And so must we mention Colorado in the same breath as Connecticut, New York, Maryland, New Jersey, and California, all of which have passed severe anti-gun measures since the beginning of the year.
Yet all is not lost in the Centennial State. On September 10, Colorado will hold the first recall election in its 137-year history. If successful, two state senators who voted for the package will be removed from office and a strong message will have been sent: Leave us alone!
Earlier in the year, before the debate was even over, a group calling itself the Basic Freedom Defense Fund began to circulate petitions to recall senate president John Morse. By June 3, the BFDF had won enough signatures to become certified as the official proponent. Meanwhile, a second group, Pueblo Freedom and Rights, targeted their local senator, Angela Giron. By June 10, PFR, too, had attracted enough signatures to trigger a recall. Pooling resources, the two groups have now joined forces, convincing the state to set their efforts within the same legal framework and to hold the elections on the same day. In the meantime, the Huffington Post recorded last month, 32,000 citizens of Colorado have applied for concealed-carry permits. In the whole of last year, only 17,000 requests were processed.
“Something happened here,” Jennifer Kerns, who represents both groups, tells me. “The government overreached — a little like with this IRS or NSA situation.”
“There are Democratic majorities in both houses for the first time in a long time,” she continued, and they’re entertaining “the most radical legislative agenda in Colorado’s history.” It is an agenda that Colorado voters did not know they were getting, and appear not to want. In July, Scott Bland of National Journal reported that Hickenlooper’s approval rating had dropped 16 points since last December. It’s “no stretch,” Bland contended, “to draw a line between Hickenlooper’s declining popularity and recent items on his agenda.” The legislature is faring little better. The polling firm Ciruli Associates recently revealed that there was “a full-scale revolt going on right now in Colorado,” while the Washington Times noted that “voters appear to be having a case of buyers’ remorse.”
A quick review of his campaign website reveals that senate majority leader Morse did not mention gun control even once while running last November. Instead, his pitch was full of promises about jobs, the economy, and health care. Nevertheless, Kerns says, once in office, Morse quickly “turned to guns and forced that agenda” anyway. “This goes beyond gun control and into the realm of accountability,” she claims. “It wasn’t just the laws, but the way they passed them.”
As in New York and Connecticut — which both limited debate and passed their measures in a manner usually reserved for emergency legislation — many Coloradans felt unreasonably shut out of the process: Law-enforcement officers went to the capital, Denver, to testify against the legislation but were turned away at the door; floor debate was shut down on a seemingly capricious basis; and the rules were changed midstream. Rape victims who testified were, Kerns recalls, “treated with disdain and disrespect.” So frustrated were many citizens at how they were silenced that they drove around the capitol building honking their horns.
“John Morse saw an opportunity to become a national star,” Kerns observes, submitting that he has fallen in with “the Bloomberg set, which has not sat well in Colorado — an independent-minded state.” Governor Hickenlooper, too, once a reliable friend of the right to bear arms, appears to have turned toward New York for his inspiration. Contra his desperate insistence that neither “the White House [nor] New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg’s group was controlling the agenda,” Todd Shephard, an investigative reporter at CompleteColorado.com, used an inspired freedom-of-information request to demonstrate that Bloomberg was in fact involved in the passage of the law:
Phone records obtained by CompleteColorado.com show that Mayor Bloomberg personally called Governor Hickenlooper at two critical moments of the gun-bill debate. While the calls may not exhibit a direct “controlling” of the process by Mayor Bloomberg, at the very least they likely show Bloomberg taking a hands-on, executive-level approach to the events in Colorado.
Kerns believes that Colorado is serving as a test case for progressives nationwide. If pro-gun-control forces can win there, she predicts, they will try to emulate their success elsewhere. If not, in the words of Paula Noonan of the left-leaning website Colorado Capitol Watch, gun restrictionists will have to “tuck away any initiatives for 20 years.” “This has struck a nerve with national Democrats,” Kerns confirms.
It certainly seems that way. Senator Angela Giron, one of the two recall targets, has hired Chris Shallow, a staff member from President Obama’s reelection campaign, to join her fight in Pueblo. “It’s amusing to see all of these signs in Giron’s window decrying ‘outside influence,’” Kerns laughs, “and then see a car with Illinois license plates parked just five feet away.”
“This is a truly grassroots campaign, and we’re reaching demographics that the GOP seemingly can’t,” Kerns says, noting that the campaign is popular with unions and steelworkers. (The former president of AFSCME 123 signed the petition to recall Giron, calling the senator’s vote for gun control “the final straw.”) Five of the six founders of the BFDF have never been involved in politics before, she tells me. Two of them are “plumbers in their twenties,” and another is Hispanic. “Not typical conservatives,” Kerns notes. The group is also popular among women. “In fact,” she adds, “this isn’t a partisan thing: Combined, the number of Democrats and independents that signed the recall petition outnumbered the Republicans.”
In a rather flustered post yesterday, the Daily Kos’s Markos Moulitsas indulged himself with the typical and peculiar insinuation that if elected politicians do something that people don’t like and then are recalled because of it, democracy is dead, arguing witlessly that the recallers wish to “intimidate elected officials into subservience.” He also suggested that pro-right-to-bear-arms groups are somehow overstepping the legitimate bounds of advocacy in a free society by backing the recall effort. Ultimately, though, Moulitsas has seen what is happening in a state that is increasingly important to Democrats, and he’s worried. Senators Morse and Giron, he warned, are “in real danger of being ousted.”
Let’s hope so.
— Charles C. W. Cooke is a staff writer for National Review.