TUESDAY UPDATE: A reader points us to an appearance last night on The Last Word With Lawrence O'Donnell by recalled Colorado Senate President John Morse, in which Morse slams Weld County Sheriff John Cooke's stated goal to repeal the post-Columbine Amendment 22 background checks at gun shows:
Would it have made a difference in Morse's very close but successful recall election for the voters to have known that the Republican who replaced him, Bernie Herpin, played a big role in the opposition to Amendment 22–which was approved by 70% of Colorado voters in the 2000 elections? We'll never know, since Democrats decided to avoid engagement on the gun issue wherever possible last summer. We've been clear in our opinion that this was a pivotal mistake. Sources tell us that Morse always agreed with that assessment, and only reluctantly avoided directly confronting Herpin on the issue on insistence from outside consultants.
What we feel very confident about is this: if the public understood what the gun lobby in Colorado really wants, and has persuaded officials like Sheriff Cooke to support, they would be appalled. This gap between public perception and the extreme reality of the gun lobby's agenda is exactly what Democrats need to address going into next year's session. One of 2013's most important lessons for Colorado Democrats is that they can never again leave this issue for opponents to frame. Original post follows.
UPDATE: By request, here's a direct link to Weld County Sheriff John Cooke's Rocky Mountain Gun Owners candidate questionnaire. The positions claimed by Sheriff Cooke in this document are unambiguous: Cooke supports repeal of the post-Columbine law requiring background checks on sales of guns at gun shows, Amendment 22. Cooke even opposes the standard Brady "insta-check" background checks required for all firearms purchases from gun dealers nationwide. In short, Cooke opposes any background checks for gun puchases. These positions put Cooke well outside the mainstream of opinions on this issue based on any polling we've ever seen.
And anyone reading today's New York Times really needs to be aware of this.
The New York Times' Erica Goode reports:
Colorado’s package of gun laws, enacted this year after mass shootings in Aurora, Colo., and Newtown, Conn., has been hailed as a victory by advocates of gun control. But if [Weld County] Sheriff [John] Cooke and a majority of the other county sheriffs in Colorado offer any indication, the new laws — which mandate background checks for private gun transfers and outlaw magazines over 15 rounds — may prove nearly irrelevant across much of the state’s rural regions.
Some sheriffs, like Sheriff Cooke, are refusing to enforce the laws, saying that they are too vague and violate Second Amendment rights. Many more say that enforcement will be “a very low priority,” as several sheriffs put it. All but seven of the 62 elected sheriffs in Colorado signed on in May to a federal lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the statutes…
Sheriffs who refuse to enforce gun laws around the country are in the minority, though no statistics exist. In Colorado, though, sheriffs like Joe Pelle of Boulder County, who support the laws and have more liberal constituencies that back them, are outnumbered.
“A lot of sheriffs are claiming the Constitution, saying that they’re not going to enforce this because they personally believe it violates the Second Amendment,” Sheriff Pelle said. “But that stance in and of itself violates the Constitution.” [Pols emphasis]
The backlash against Colorado's new gun safety laws this year has been at least figureheaded by Colorado county sheriffs more or less from the beginning. As we've tried to explain when they are invoked in the debate, elected county sheriff positions in this state have been aggressively targeted by the gun lobby. Many of the most prominent county sheriffs involved in opposition to the gun bills and the subsequent lawsuit owe their jobs to the Rocky Mountain Gun Owners.
RMGO's position on many gun safety policies is in fact distantly to the right of the public–as are the positions held by Weld County Sheriff John Cooke and many other Colorado sheriffs. Cooke's RMGO candidate questionnaire indicates that he opposes all background checks for gun purchases. Not just checks on "private" transactions, but getting rid of the standard background checks performed on gun sales at stores everywhere today. Sheriff Cooke even favors repeal of Amendment 22, the ballot initiative passed in the aftermath of the shooting at Columbine High School to require background checks for gun show sales. It's key that this point not get lost: this is a law that passed with the support of over 70% of voters.
There is a large gap between the public's perception of county sheriffs as law enforcers and protectors of public safety, and their actual views on gun safety, which are markedly at odds with the public's strong support for policies like universal background checks for gun purchases. As we've said before, using county sheriffs to publicly front opposition to these bills was a brilliant propaganda stroke by the gun lobby. But if their actual extreme positions on gun laws were generally understood, we believe the public would develop serious questions about the judgment of these sheriffs.
Perhaps that will begin with word getting out that these sheriffs are refusing to enforce the law. According to Republican Attorney General John Suthers, there's no direct means in Colorado by which an overseeing political authority can compel sheriffs to enforce the law–that being the role of voters to hold these elected officials accountable. It was helpful to Democrats when the courts threw the sheriffs out of the lawsuit against the new Colorado gun safety laws, ruling they lacked standing to sue in their official capacities.
The next step should be to make Republicans explain how they really feel, in public, as often as possible, about issues like background checks for gun sales. Not just House Bill 13-1229, but the background checks the public takes for granted, broadly supports, and John Cooke wants to see repealed. Democrats need to ask about this every chance they get, and not take evasions for an answer.
Because the real answers aren't pretty.