In Colorado, the president of the state Senate is facing an unprecedented challenge. In light of two mass shootings in the state and the killing of elementary-school students in Connecticut, the Democratic state legislature pushed through a suite of gun control laws that banned the sale of high-capacity magazines, raised gun fees and mandated universal background checks for gun purchases.
In this gun-loving part of the country, these laws received almost instant backlash.
“Tell me that you get 20 6-year-olds shot in the face with a semiautomatic assault rifle … and that your elected officials should say, ‘Hmm, I’m really sorry that happened. I’m not going to do anything about it,’” said John Morse (D-Colorado Springs), the Colorado Senate president, who is currently a target of a recall attempt against Democrats that voted for the gun laws. “I mean, if you’re not going to lead in those kinds of moments, why are you in this role?”
Morse and others are being challenged by state Republicans in a strategy that seems to be half fundamental ideology and half political positioning. While critics of the state’s new gun laws argue that they are an overreach of authority and an assault on fundamental freedoms, the optics of removing an elected official for supporting and passing a gun control bill cannot be denied.
“If you can take out the Senate president in Colorado,” Morse said, “then, arguably, you can take out any legislator anywhere in the country. And so I do think it would have a chilling effect.”
Laura Carno, whose organization is in part behind the petition to oust Morse, agreed.
“What’s at stake in this recall election is the definition of the relationship between citizens and their government officials,” Carno said, serving notice to any politician that doubts the resolve of the gun rights movement. “We hire you. We can fire you.”
Challenging the vote
Initially, the petitioners targeted four Democrats for recall. Two of the challengers ultimately fizzled out. As of the publishing of this article, qualified petitions have been gathered to recall state Sen. Angela Giron (D-Pueblo) and Morse. Pueblo, a politically moderate community, is seen as an uphill challenge for the recall advocates, leaving Morse — a Democrat from an overwhelmingly red district — the best possible target.
Morse won his reelection bid by just 340 votes in 2010. State Republicans blamed the Libertarians for placing a candidate on the ballot, splitting the Republican voting bloc. With the state’s conservative caucus sponsoring this recall action, the Libertarians are being asked to stay out of the process.
“Please try to appeal to the Libertarians not to get into this race as well,” one person posted on Facebook. “The only thing they could accomplish is to re-elect Morse! I couldn’t possibly think of a way for a bunch of Libertarians to become more hated!”
This is despite the fact that — because of term limits — Morse cannot run for reelection in 2014. Due to the fact that only 7,178 signatures were needed to force a recall, or a quarter of all votes cast in the district when he was elected, petitioners found it easiest to get the needed signatures to put Morse up for recall. This, however, does not mean that the process was without hurdles.
Last week, lawyers for Morse called on the secretary of state to declare the recall effort invalid. As argued by Morse’s attorney, Mark Grueskin, the petitions submitted were unconstitutional because the Colorado Constitution requires all recall petitions to specifically make clear that a recall, if successful, will trigger a special election. Colorado Springs can hardly afford such an election.
A conservative mainstay, the area’s commitment to low taxes, combined with lower revenues due to the Great Recession, have created a situation where private citizens pay directly for public works projects. Special elections in Pueblo and Colorado Springs will cost more than $100,000 each, according to state Democratic Party Chair Rick Palacio, creating budget deficits and taking money away from things such as streetlights, schools and senior citizen care.
A poll referenced by Grueskin shows that 54 percent of all people surveyed in the 11th district didn’t know that a recall triggered a special election. The petitioners dispute this.
“The petition itself is asking for a recall election,” said Victor Head, campaign manager for Pueblo Freedom and Rights, which is working to recall Sen. Giron. “Splicing the meaning of ‘ask’ doesn’t sit well with people. There were lawyers who drew up that language and the Secretary of State gave us the petition. We just put in the specifics.”
Even though the petition has been in place for 10 years and Colorado’s recall laws for more than a century, these petitions represent the first test of the state’s voter recall provisions.
“The Secretary’s staff used a form that they inherited from their predecessors,” Grueskin said. “They’re not the recall proponents, it’s not their job to make sure it’s legal. They’ve said, time and time again, if you want to circulate a petition, it’s your job to make it right. It’s the recall proponents, who wrap themselves in the Constitution, who appear not to have read it.”
A national backlash
While the recall efforts seem to be a specific response to the restrictions imposed in a gun-friendly state, they are also reflective of the state of the gun debate nationally. As the march to the 2014 midterm elections begins in earnest, many Republicans now fear that gun control will be a deciding issue, if not the leading issue, in the 2014 races.
New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s pro-gun-control organization, Mayors Against Illegal Guns, has targeted U.S. senators that voted against the gun control bill that failed in April. While taking external and internal criticism for using New York City’s servers to host its website, the group continues to air public service announcements pushing for gun legislation, offer financial support to anti-gun candidates, and sponsor a 100-day, 25-state bus tour to push for stricter gun control measures.
Recently, former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.) and her husband, former astronaut Mark Kelly, concluded their “Rights and Responsibilities Tour,” in which Giffords and Kelly met with a coalition of “unlikely allies that support commonsense gun measures,” including former President George H. W. Bush. The point of the tour is to put pressure on Sen. Dean Heller (R-Nev.), Sen. Mark Begich (D-Alaska), Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.), Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) and Sen. Heidi Heitkamp (D-N.D.) to change their opposition to the Senate gun control bill.
While surveys indicate that law enforcement feels the proposed gun control measures will be ineffective in reducing violent crime, and although recent statistics show most gun deaths are actually suicides, the public call for gun control remains strong. It is now thought that the gun issue may drive more women and minorities to the polls, giving Democrats momentum going into the 2014.
“A majority of women in this country want to save their children and want to make their communities safe. Women are going to be reminded in the next election and in the election after. [They will ask congressmen], ‘Where were you when we were trying to protect our children?’” said Rep. Carolyn McCarthy (D-N.Y.). “That is powerful.”
Traditionally, public support for gun control legislation hovers around the 80-percent range, while support among women typically hits the 90s. Support for gun control paid off for Sens. Mary Landrieu (D-La.) and Kay Hagan (D-N.C.), who were seen as easy targets as Democratic senators in red states. A survey from Public Policy Polling, however, shows both senators with approval levels above 50 percent. On the other hand, Sens. Richard Burr (R-N.C.) and David Vitter (R-La.) — who both voted against the gun control bill — have disapproval levels in excess of 40 percent.
The realities of the gun control votes are just being realized, and the conclusion of this fight is too far away to be estimated. But for all involved, one thing is known.
“In his bitter response to the Senate’s votes, President Obama said that this fight is far from over, and that’s the one thing that he is right about,” said Chris Cox, executive director of the NRA’s lobbying arm.
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