6 Lessons From The Colorado Gun Wars

Sep 16, 2013
Originally published on September 13, 2013 4:12 pm

In the latest faceoff over gun control laws, gun rights groups won big.

In Colorado this week, the National Rifle Association and other gun rights groups helped oust two state senators — both Democrats — in contentious recall elections prompted by their support of a package of gun control laws the Legislature passed earlier this year.

The recalls weren't an easy lift. One of the targets was the state Senate president, John Morse, and the other, Angela Giron, represented a very solidly blue district.

Here are six things we learned from Tuesday's Colorado recall elections:

1. The Limits Of Tragedy

Even in a state that has seen two of the most horrific mass shootings — Columbine (1999) and Aurora (2012) — the gun control issue remains fiercely divisive and a topic that is far from settled. The new Colorado laws, which remain on the books, are popular with the general public. But this is a Western state with a strong gun culture. Those voters are active and motivated — and committed voters trump public opinion, especially in a low-turnout, summertime special election.

2. Grass Roots Vs. Greenbacks

The election was widely seen as a proxy battle between the National Rifle Association and the new group created by New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg called Mayors Against Illegal Guns. In fact, Bloomberg contributed $350,000 to try to defeat the recalls. There was plenty of outside money spent in the fight: Denver political analyst and pollster Floyd Ciruli said the airwaves were so saturated with ads it felt like the frenzied height of a presidential election in parts of this battleground state. Gun rights groups were significantly outspent, explains Ciruli, but carried the day mostly through a very effective grass-roots campaign.

3. The Big Gulp Factor

While Bloomberg's money is a boon to gun control efforts, in some parts of the country his mere presence provides the opposition with a powerful motivational talking point. Dudley Brown, president of the Colorado-based Rocky Mountain Gun Owners, argues that taking money from Bloomberg means you are instantly associated with his entire agenda, including "banning Big Gulps and the whole nanny state."

4. Beware Of Polling

A trend has been established when it comes to attitudes toward tougher gun laws. Michael Dimock of Pew Research says public sentiment for new restrictions goes up after tragedies like Newtown, Conn., or Aurora, but it subsides after a matter of months. And even if the public is very supportive of specific measures such as background checks or limiting the size of ammunition magazines (both are elements of the Colorado law), many people who support such things also express wariness that implementing them could erode overall Second Amendment rights. That complicates the effort to change laws.

5. The Intensity Gap

There remains a big gap in the level of intensity between gun groups and gun control advocates. For many gun owners, it's an existential issue. The choice is as stark as black and white — and they're far more likely to use it as the sole basis for their vote. And, yes, they will turn out on Election Day. Even if it's a special election on a Tuesday in early September. Gun control advocates acknowledge the intensity gap. Their challenge is in figuring out how to get their voters as motivated as the other side — especially the many who support their view but are only casually interested in the issue.

6. Get Ready For More Recalls

Denver pollster Ciruli says there's one last point worth noting: Tuesday's elections were the first recalls of Colorado legislators in history. He predicts that the recall election will become a much more frequently used tool against elected officials. Technology makes organizing a recall easier than ever and, Ciruli says, "with millions of dollars floating around the country and ready to come to battle" we'll see a lot more of this around the U.S.

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish.


And I'm Robert Siegel.

Colorado, scene of the deadly mass shootings in Columbine and Aurora, was, this week, the latest battleground in the debate over gun rights. In a special recall election, pro-gun interests ousted two Democratic state senators, punishment for their support of new gun control laws the state passed earlier this year. The election was notable because of the presence and money of outside groups. New York Mayor Mike Bloomberg contributed $350,000 to help the embattled senators.

NPR national political correspondent Don Gonyea reports on the lessons of the Colorado recall.

DON GONYEA, BYLINE: The two incumbent senators had plenty of money in this race. TV ads on their behalf dominated local television. Statewide polls show the Colorado gun laws, which require background checks and limit the size of ammunition magazines, to be popular. One of the senators, Angela Giron, was in a solidly Democratic district. The other, John Morse, was in a swing district. He was seen as being more at risk, but they weren't both expected to lose. Dudley Brown is head of the Rocky Mountain Gun Owners.

DUDLEY BROWN: These two state senators were retired by a vote of the people. And this was just a down payment for the 2014 elections because we're going to do this to every one of these people who voted against our right to keep and bear arms.

GONYEA: Brown says they welcomed the fact that gun control groups from around the country came to the state to try to defeat the recall. Much of what his and other pro-gun groups, including the National Rifle Association, did in this race was of a grassroots nature, reaching out directly through social media, local meetings and email to their very motivated supporters. But they also produced ads. Here's one targeting Senator Morse.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN: He'd rather do the bidding of East Coast liberals like billionaire playboy, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg.

GONYEA: Dudley Brown says it was a pleasure having Michael Bloomberg backing the other side.

BROWN: We made very clear that when you take his money you take his whole agenda, including banning Big Gulps and government regulation of salty foods and the whole nanny state pile of it.

GONYEA: Now, this was just a special election, turnout was low, which worked to the advantage of the gun rights groups because they are a group highly motivated to turn out. Michael Dimock of Pew Research says national polling quantifies just how much more intensity core pro-gun voters have.

MICHAEL DIMOCK: The folks who said protecting gun rights were four times as likely to say they've contributed money on the issue. They were more likely to say that they would never vote for a candidate who disagrees with them on this. 41 percent of gun rights supporters say this is a black-and-white issue for them.

GONYEA: Dimock says a pattern has developed. After a shooting like the one in Aurora or Newtown, public support for tough gun laws grows, but it then subsides in a matter of months. Gun control groups are disappointed but say the Colorado vote is not representative of public attitudes on the issue. Dan Gross of the Brady Center to End Gun Violence says it's important to remember that the new Colorado gun laws are still on the books. But he also acknowledges an enthusiasm gap.

DAN GROSS: This isn't for us a question of winning hearts and minds. It's a question of creating enough intensity to make sure that that will is reflected in terms of holding our elected leaders accountable, and in terms of ultimately making this the safer nation that we all want.

GONYEA: The need to increase voter intensity is an easy thing to identify, perhaps not so easy to fix. And 2014 will no doubt provide more tests. Don Gonyea, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.