Senate Democrats Tuesday, over strong objections from the Republican minority, passed Senate Bill 256, a bill that lifts the state's ban on local governments passing stricter gun laws than those that exist in state law.
The final vote was along party lines, 19-15, with one Democrat absent.
Senate Majority Leader Steve Fenberg, D-Boulder, said he started working on the bill before the March 22 King Soopers shooting in south Boulder, and just after a Boulder district court judge tossed a local ordinance banning assault weapons within city limits.
"I think the judge got it right" based on the 2003 state preemption law, he told the Senate Monday.
"I don't think it's right that some cities can do this and some cannot," he said, referring to a similar Denver ordinance banning firearms that was upheld by the state Supreme Court, due to it being an issue of mixed state and local concern. Guns play a different role in everyone's life, he acknowledged. For some, guns are normal part of life while others may not have ever seen one.
"But we also know the impact of guns, the violence that results from them, is different in every community as well," noting that the vast majority of suicides come from guns.
It's appropriate to allow the local body closest to their citizens to pass ordinances that they believe are best for their community, Fenberg said.
Co-sponsor Sen. Dominick Moreno, D-Commerce City, pointed out the bill is permissive: It allows local governments to establish local control but is not a mandate. Throughout the past few years, the General Assembly has passed legislation to give more autonomy to local governments, like local control on minimum wage. Local governments can already restrict open carry of firearms, he pointed out, and some local governments have already declared themselves Second Amendment sanctuaries, most recently in response to the red flag law of 2019.
The bill was amended during Monday's debate to grant those with concealed carry permits an exemption from criminal penalties tied to a local ordinance, based on whether that person should have known about a local ordinance that bans firearms in general or concealed weapons.
Republicans strongly objected. "This bill doesn't just allow a local jurisdiction to prohibit certain types of firearms," said Senate Minority Leader Chris Holbert, R-Douglas County, during final debate on Tuesday. His main objection was on the bill's language on concealed carry. Law-abiding citizens who avail themselves of that permit will need to understand which counties, municipalities or special districts will allow them to carry their concealed weapon, he said. "I'm frustrated with SB 256 because it would allow local government to put up invisible barriers," and concealed weapons holders will suddenly be doing something wrong depending on which side of the barrier they're in.
Sen. Jerry Sonnenberg, R-Sterling, said the bill will repeal his ability to carry concealed in Colorado. "If it affects me, it affects others the same way," and in 35 other states with which Colorado has reciprocity agreements on concealed carry. "This bill makes us less safe. Concealed carry holders are the most law-abiding and safest among us. We have jumped through every hoop to obtain a permit, and do whatever it takes to maintain that right. We will always follow the law."
But the risk of running afoul of a random district or town will be too great, Sonnenberg said. "They will be disarmed by a patchwork of laws created by thousands of jurisdictions in this state," he said, adding that meanwhile, criminals and terrorists wouldn't be impacted at all.
Citizens will be subject to criminal penalties in some jurisdictions for behavior that is perfectly lawful in others, added Sen. John Cooke, R-Greeley. That violates equal treatment under the law, he indicated, and it's why the preemption law was written in 2003: it was true then and it's true now.
In response, Sen. Rhonda Fields, D-Aurora, pointed to the events of Sandy Hook, the Pulse Nightclub in Orlando and the Aurora Theater shooting. "You're selling a fantasy" of a good guy with a gun, she said. "Not all people who have guns are good guys; it's a deadly fantasy that we should not be elevating." It's time for a reality check, and doing nothing in the state of Colorado is not an option, she said.
"If we're serious about deaths by firearms, we'll get serious about felons with firearms, illegal or stolen firearms." The only way to deal with the bad guys is to get them off the streets, said Sen. Bob Gardner, R-Colorado Springs.
"The fantasy is that SB 256 is going to make a difference," Gardner said.
Fenberg explained that he doesn't usually work on issues like this, leaving it to others with lived experience. But the shooting in Boulder made this personal, he said, and his community begged him to take action. The bill would not have prevented the shooting, nor solve the problems of guns, he added, but it allows communities to control their own destiny.
Senate Bill 256 now heads to the House.