One day after the murder of 10 Coloradans in a Boulder supermarket, Democrats on the House Judiciary Committee advanced a bill to mandate the reporting of lost or stolen firearms, a proposal that all four of the committee's Republicans opposed.
“There is actually a duty to report crimes in the state of Colorado,” observed Rep. Steven Woodrow, D-Denver. “This bill doesn’t reinvent the wheel on that front.”
The primary argument from opponents claimed a report to police was a “backdoor” means of instituting a government-run gun registry, which one advocate likened to the Nazi regime.
“As Nazi Germany taught us, registration is the first step to confiscation,” said Taylor Rhodes, executive director of the conservative Rocky Mountain Gun Owners group.
Among those speaking in favor of Senate Bill 78 was Denver District Attorney Beth McCann, who disputed that assessment and instead argued the legislation would provide police a better way to track weapons and solve violent crimes.
“I cannot understand how this would be considered a backdoor way for registration of guns or confiscation of guns. It’s really an effort to protect the community,” she said.
As written, the measure would require firearm owners to report to law enforcement within five days of learning their gun has been lost or stolen. The relevant information in the report would include model, serial number, caliber and manufacturer, if known. Failing to report would merit a $25 fine for the first incident, and would be a misdemeanor crime on subsequent occasions, with a fine of up to $500.
The law enforcement agency receiving the report would in turn alert the Colorado Bureau of Investigation and the National Crime Information Center database, which provides criminal justice information to agencies nationwide.
Although there is no indication the gun used in the Boulder massacre was stolen, committee members heard from Ana Thallas, the mother of 21-year-old Isabella Thallas, who was the victim of a murder in Denver’s Ballpark neighborhood in June 2020. The alleged murderer used an AK-47 semi-automatic rifle stolen from a Denver police sergeant.
“Seeing an aerial view of my baby covered with the white sheet, her beautiful little feet were left in plain sight for everyone to see,” Thallas said, weeping. “What does it take? How many more lives must we lose? When will it end?”
An analysis of federal data by the Center for American Progress estimated that 31,848 firearms were stolen in Colorado between 2012 and 2017. A survey of state and federal prisoners in 2016 found roughly one in five reported carrying a gun while committing their crime. Approximately 13% had either stolen the gun or "found it" at the scene of the crime. Nearly half obtained the gun from an unlicensed or "street" source.
At least 300,000 privately-owned firearms are stolen every year, according to one survey. SB78 would not apply to licensed firearm dealers, even though stolen guns from such vendors totaled 618 between 2012 and 2016 in Colorado. Twelve other states and the District of Columbia have mandates to report to law enforcement in some or all cases of gun loss, theft or both.
Rep. Stephanie Luck, R-Penrose, suggested to the bill's sponsors that education, rather than monetary penalties, may be a better approach to promote safe gun practices.
Rep. Tom Sullivan, D-Centennial, replied that he would welcome the opportunity to record a PSA, “but just talking about it and hoping people do the right thing" was not the solution.
Agreeing that the penalties in the bill were reasonable was Rep. Jennifer Bacon, D-Denver, who is a former teacher. One of her students died at the hands of someone using a stolen gun, she said.
"To say that a $25 fine is oppressive just doesn't register for me," Bacon added.
During 2020, the Colorado Bureau of Investigation processed a record number of background checks, which is a proxy measurement for the number of gun purchases. Gun experts cited fear from the pandemic, unrest over policing practices and the presidential elections as reasons for the dramatic increase.
Peter Fogg, representing Colorado Faith Communities United to End Gun Violence, told committee members the faith-based community is "not naïve enough to think that thoughts and prayers are enough. The 'thoughts and prayers' mantra every time there's a mass shooting, chanted over and over again, is not accomplishing anything. What needs to happen is action."
SB78 passed the Senate on March 10 on a party-line vote of 20-15. Voting against the bill in the House Judiciary Committee were Luck and Republican Reps. Terri Carver of Colorado Springs, Rod Bockenfeld of Watkins and Mike Lynch of Wellington. SB78 heads to the House floor for a second reading.
The proposal is one of several gun-related measures before the General Assembly this year. Although several Republican-sponsored bills have since died, a Democratic proposal about safe firearm storage passed the House of Representatives earlier this month. Senate Majority Leader Steve Fenberg, D-Boulder, in response to the massacre in his community, indicated he may introduce a bill allowing localities to enact more stringent gun safety regulations than state law currently allows.