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Colorado is passing the most significant package of gun legislation in state history

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Gun control legislation may be nearly impossible to get through the U.S. Congress right now, but Colorado lawmakers are passing the most significant package of gun legislation in state history. Bente Birkeland with Colorado Public Radio reports that's because, in the last five years, Democrats in the state have been growing and solidifying their political power.

BENTE BIRKELAND, BYLINE: Colorado's package of gun bills was already in process before two recent shootings involving students from the same Denver high school.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENTS #1: What do we want?

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENTS #2: Safety.

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENTS #1: Where do we want it?

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENTS #2: School.

BIRKELAND: After those shootings, hundreds of students marched on Colorado's Capitol building, demanding action on gun violence.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ANGELI CAZARES: We shouldn't have to do this. We shouldn't have to fight for our safety. We are tired. We are terrified. And we are angry.

BIRKELAND: Democratic Senator Tom Sullivan didn't need any convincing. He got involved in politics after his son, Alex, was killed in the 2012 Aurora theater shooting.

TOM SULLIVAN: We don't address the public health crisis that that is gun violence - people die. That's why we have to do something.

BIRKELAND: The bills Democrats passed include a measure to expand the state's so-called red flag law. It allows more people to file petitions to temporarily remove someone's guns. Another raises the age to purchase a firearm to 21. A measure to make it easier to sue the firearms industry and a bill requiring a three-day waiting period to buy a gun are still pending, but expected to pass. Sullivan's top priority for years has been to make sure gun violence is at the forefront of policy discussions and for Democrats to go on offense.

SULLIVAN: And so that's been my conversation with leadership and the rest of the caucus - that we're going to talk about this just like you talk about transportation and education and health care and mental health. You're going to talk about those every single time.

BIRKELAND: Even though Republicans didn't have the votes to stop the measures, the debates were among the longest in recent memory. House Minority Leader Mike Lynch says the bills infringe on constitutional rights and fail to address the root causes of gun violence, such as mental health issues and criminal behavior.

MIKE LYNCH: The personality of Colorado is kind of the West, and firearms are kind of a part of that. So I kind of hate to see this being one of the places that it's really, really clamped down on when the issues that are occurring are occurring here in Denver.

BIRKELAND: Republicans tried to slow things down, but there wasn't a groundswell of grassroots protests at the Capitol like in previous years. When Democrats passed gun reforms 10 years ago, opponents circled the Capitol building in their cars day and night, honking horns. A plane flew overhead, trailing a banner urging against gun control. Republican Representative Gabe Evans says he's been inundated with emails from opponents to the bills from his mostly rural district, but he says they don't think their voice really matters anymore.

GABE EVANS: With my constituents, I mean, they tell me, wow, I'm surprised they let you speak at all. Why would I even go down there? If they don't listen to you, why would they listen to me?

BIRKELAND: Colorado's Democratic governor, Jared Polis, is expected to sign the measures into law soon. A prominent gun rights group plans to sue and believes the courts will agree the measures are unconstitutional. But there is one gun bill Democrats are not rallying behind - a proposed statewide assault weapons ban. A couple of members of the party have introduced a measure, but so far it hasn't been scheduled for debate. There's not widespread agreement among Democrats that a state ban would be effective.

For NPR News, I'm Bente Birkeland in Denver.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Bente Birkeland has been reporting on state legislative issues for KUNC and Rocky Mountain Community Radio since 2006. Originally, from Minnesota, Bente likes to hike and ski in her spare time. She keeps track of state politics throughout the year but is especially busy during the annual legislative session from January through early May.