DENVER (AP) — A Democrat-backed bill to create a state Office of Gun Violence Prevention got its first hearing before a Colorado legislative committee Friday, with backers arguing it could educate residents about gun safety and existing laws on firearms while collecting data about gun violence in the state.
Opponents, however, told the House Public & Behavioral Health & Human Services Committee the proposed office would amount to a gun-control agency in state government and duplicate existing programs to deter homicides, suicides and domestic violence and offer mental health services.
The bill is one of three introduced by Democrats in response to the March 22 Boulder supermarket shooting that killed 10 people. The others would allow tightened background checks and allow municipalities greater freedom to adopt their own gun control laws.
The bill involving the office calls for $3 million to create it within the state health department. It would act as a clearinghouse on gun violence data and create public service advertisements for state and local programs aimed at suicide prevention, gang-related violence and other issues.
It also would seek and award grants to community organizations and solicit feedback on the success or failure of intervention strategies, said Rep. Tom Sullivan, a co-sponsor of the bill. The office could collaborate with researchers, schools, health care institutions and gun safety groups including firearm dealers, instructors and shooting ranges, backers say.
Sullivan said the news media repeatedly seeks him out to discuss gun violence since he lost his son, Alex, in the 2012 Aurora movie theater shooting. “Why does this keep happening in Colorado?” reporters ask, he said. “But really, I’m as puzzled they are.”
Co-sponsor Rep. Jennifer Bacon insisted the effort will allow local programs, especially in underserved communities, to benefit from their shared experiences.
“The codification of this office is a commitment to the priority” of saving lives, Bacon said. “The investment up front will contribute to the return of someone making it to (the age of) 25.”
Minority Republican members of the committee, including Reps. Richard Holtorf, Colin Larson and Rod Pelton, expressed skepticism that the data collection, staffing and expenditures of the office would take into account all sources and points of view on gun violence.
“Why are we creating an additional level of bureaucracy?” Larson asked. “Why not just put (the $3 million) into existing awareness programs?”
Bacon insisted there’s a need to focus collective efforts on gun violence and to make residents aware of laws on the books, such as Colorado’s “red flag” law that allows residents concerned about a person in crisis to ask a court to order the temporary seizure of firearms from that person.
Jonathan McMillan, who’s dedicated more than 25 years to working as a youth mentor and to gang prevention in Denver, argued that community organizations dealing with youth violence, trauma and gang retaliation would benefit from a state effort without infringing on Second Amendment rights.
“Gun violence prevention should always be viewed as a public health priority,” McMillan said.
“I think a coordinated effort at a state level is something that we really need,” said Denver District Attorney Beth McCann, citing an alarming rise in homicides from 63 in 2019 to 95 in 2020. “A coordinated effort will make all of our efforts more effective,” McCann said.
Several Second Amendment activists urged lawmakers to defeat the proposal, arguing the proposed office, with a director appointed by the governor, would be inherently political.
Taylor Rhodes, executive director of the group Rocky Mountain Gun Owners, lambasted what he called a “blatant effort to use $3 million in taxpayer dollars to lobby in favor of gun control.”
Rhodes argued that Democratic Gov. Jared Polis, a gun-control advocate, would appoint a director who sides with his beliefs, just as a Republican governor would appoint someone to represent their beliefs. “This would be a nightmare of public policy,” Rhodes said.
The committee voted 8-5 along party lines to advance the bill to the House Appropriations Committee.
Before the vote, Sullivan objected to assumptions that the initiative is about gun control or confiscation, or that he, as the father of a murder victim, is out to attack Second Amendment ownership rights.
“There’s nothing further from the truth. I’m trying to keep your kids alive,” he said.