Colorado House races illustrate gun safety chasm between Democrats and Republicans

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The Democratic nominees in Colorado's 7th and 8th Congressional Districts helped pass the state's red flag law. The GOP's nominees oppose any and all gun safety measures.

Two House races in Colorado could determine control of Congress in the November midterms. They are shaping up to be close contests between Democratic state legislators who played key roles in passing the state's red flag gun laws and Republicans who oppose virtually any legislation to curb gun violence.

In Colorado's 7th Congressional District, which includes areas west and southwest of Denver, Democratic state Sen. Brittany Pettersen is facing Republican Erik Aadland for the open seat of retiring Democratic Rep. Ed Perlmutter. 

Pettersen was a lead Senate sponsor of Colorado's extreme risk protection order law, commonly known as a red flag law. The law, which was enacted in 2019, allows courts to temporarily disarm people deemed a significant danger to themselves or others.

In the newly created 8th Congressional District, which includes Denver's northern suburbs, Democratic state Rep. Yadira Caraveo is running against Republican state Sen. Barbara Kirkmeyer. Caraveo co-sponsored the 2019 bill.

The Cook Political Report judges both races to be competitive

Like many other House races across the United States, these contests pit Democratic candidates who back popular steps to address gun violence against Republicans running as absolutist defenders of gun rights.

Shaped by personal experience

Pettersen was in high school in Colorado when the mass shooting at nearby Columbine High School took place in 1999. Many of her neighbors and friends attended the school, which suffered what was at the time the deadliest mass shooting in the country. In the two decades since the shootings at Columbine, more than 240 school shootings have occurred in the United States. 

"It shocked the world," Pettersen told the American Independent Foundation. "And now, it's a common story in the news, and a reality that I refuse to accept."

Pettersen added, "I refuse to accept a reality where my son is going to have to go through metal detectors at school and go through active shooter drills instead of fire drills like we did. That is because of policy failures."

As a pediatrician, Caraveo believes it's important to work on gun safety laws to protect young people, including many of the patients she has treated.

During her first year of residency in a pediatric intensive care unit, Caraveo tended to a 13-year-old who had suffered a gunshot wound.

"He and his friends got access to his dad's .22, went out for a day of fun," Caraveo told the American Independent Foundation. "His friend, purposely or accidentally, shot him in the head."

While the young man survived, Caraveo said, he ended up blind and with multiple hormonal issues due to damage to several areas of his brain.

According to a report originally published by the Colorado Health Institute in January 2021, data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention place Colorado among the states with the highest suicide death rates in the nation. CDC data for 2020 puts Colorado's rate at seventh-highest among all states. A report released in 2021 by Colorado Attorney General Phil Weiser's office found that more than 80% of suicide attempts with a firearm result in death.

"I've seen firsthand what happens when kids get access to guns that should not be at hand," Caraveo said. "It was logical to me to join in the efforts to make sure when someone is going through a mental health issue or has shown a history of violence, that their access to guns be temporarily restricted."

A difficult road 

The effort to pass the state red flag law was not easy for Pettersen and Caraveo, as the debate over the bill quickly became very partisan. A 2018 version passed in the state House but died in the then-GOP controlled state Senate. After its sole GOP Senate co-sponsor lost reelection, supporters were unable to find any Republicans who would back the bill.

"They're completely unwilling to come to the table on this public health crisis that has been created by the push for guns for all without any restrictions, without any safety precautions, without any compromise ever," Pettersen said. 

The proposal finally passed in the Senate with a new Democratic majority in 2019 on an 18-17 vote. Republicans, with the backing of gun rights groups, tried unsuccessfully to recall Pettersen, in part for her role in passing the red flag bill. 

"Republicans …  had no interest in compromise," Caraveo said. "They always make it out to be that people were snatching guns. It was trying to protect health and safety. They completely opposed it."

Since it went into effect in 2020, the red flag law has proven effective: More than 250 gun seizure orders have been filed in Colorado during its first two years, according to state data

"Even sheriffs who said that they would not actually utilize the red flag law have started to," Pettersen said. "People who were very outspoken on it are now supporters."

"We have to have champions at the federal level" 

Both Pettersen and Caraveo told the American Independent Foundation that to really address the problem of gun violence, a national red flag law is needed. 

"Not all states are going to have legislatures to pass [extreme risk protection orders]. We need a national one, a process for domestic abusers to also relinquish their weapons, to close all background check loopholes," Pettersen said, rather than "having patchwork policies on gun safety issues when you need to close these nationally."

But she acknowledges that this could be a long and difficult process — especially if Republicans beholden to gun groups win majorities in Congress in November.

"We do need majorities to have a shot at getting some of these things passed," Pettersen said. "It might take a couple of years. But we have to have champions at the federal level."

Nationally, there is little common ground between the two major parties on whether to do anything about gun violence.

In June, the U.S. House passed a federal red flag bill by a vote of 224-202, almost entirely along party lines. Just five Republicans joined all but one member of the Democratic majority in voting yes. The bill has stalled in the Senate. 

Citing the opposition of gun lobby groups, including the National Rifle Association, House GOP leaders whipped their caucus to oppose the Federal Extreme Risk Protection Order Act and other gun safety legislation. According to the organization OpenSecrets, the NRA has already distributed more than $194,000 to at least 120 House Republican incumbents and candidates so far this election cycle. 

In the wake of the school shooting in Uvalde, Texas, in May, Congress passed a gun violence compromise package later that month, which President Joe Biden signed into law. Among other measures, the law provides funding to help states that enact extreme risk protection order laws with their implementation. But even the compromise omnibus bill won support from just 14 House Republicans, passing by a vote of 234-193.

GOP congressional candidates in many states have indicated they would oppose action on gun safety. In Virginia's 2nd Congressional District race, Republican nominee and state Sen. Jen Kiggans told right-wing talk radio host John Fredericks, "I am not a proponent or advocate for red flag laws. … I will never support a bill that infringes on our Second Amendment rights," and bragged of her endorsement from the NRA. Her opponent, incumbent Democratic Rep. Elaine Luria, who is running for reelection, voted in favor of both the red flag bill and the omnibus bill.

In Nevada's 4th Congressional District, the Las Vegas Review-Journal reported, Republican challenger Sam Peters has emphasized his opposition to the state's red flag law.

Absolutist opponents in Colorado

In an emailed statement, Pettersen opponent Aadland told the American Independent Foundation that while he is "deeply concerned about gun violence in America," he believes, "Red Flag Laws directly contradict the US Constitution, grossly inflate government power and may become a political weapon used against those in the government's crosshairs." Instead, he urged action to address mental health and improve school security. 

In June, in comments posted on YouTube by an account called Republican Accountability, Aadland said he would have opposed the bipartisan compromise bill: "Taking away guns doesn't work, and it's a very slippery slope." He said: "What we have is mental sickness in our society that must be addressed." Saying, "The left has done everything they can to take law enforcement out of schools" and complaining that teachers were not armed, Aadland further added, "They've taken morality out of schools, they've taken God out of schools. We need to get back to introducing sound virtuous principles in our education system and really making a society of strong, wise people who can protect those who are most precious to us." taken spirituality out of our schools, in many ways we've taken morality out of our schools." 

Kirkmeyer's campaign did not immediately respond to an inquiry for this story.

Her campaign website touts her work defending gun rights and says that during her tenure as chair of the Weld County Board of Commissioners, "Barb led the fight to make Weld County a 'Second Amendment Sanctuary' in the face of anti-gun legislation." In March 2019, she said of the commission's resolution expressing "support for the Weld County Sheriff in the exercise of his sound discretion to not enforce against any citizen an unconstitutional firearms law," "The issue isn't an issue of safety as much as it is an issue of protecting the constitutional rights of citizens."

In an ad released on March 14, Kirkmeyer, filmed firing a handgun at a gun range, states, "Democrats want to take away your Second Amendment rights, but I won't let them. I made Weld County a Second Amendment sanctuary and I won't quit until the entire nation is a sanctuary from gun-grabbing liberals."

"In the 8th District there is a very clear choice," Caraveo observed. "I've supported red flag laws and safe storage. My opponent opposed both and says she would undo them if elected to Congress. I think that's playing out in a lot of districts similar to mine."

Published with permission of The American Independent Foundation.