How dire is the political situation for supporters of gun control?
Consider the case of Colorado, which saw two horrific mass shootings in the past 20 years, and in response, passed meaningful gun-control legislation last year.
But last week, Colorado Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper, who made those measures a centerpiece of his first term, backed swiftly away from them in a meeting with a group of county sheriffs.
Hickenlooper told the biennial meeting of the County Sheriffs of Colorado, who represent rural communities in the state and who vociferously opposed the measures, that he regrets signing the bills, and would not have done so had he known more.
“I’ll tell you the funny story, and it is a weird… I think we screwed that up,” Hickenlooper said, according to a videotape of the remarks that one sheriff in attendance posted online.
“So we were performing legislation without basic facts, which I think is a bad idea in every case. It took almost a month to get the facts. By that time I had pissed you guys off… There was passed legislation that I had said I was going to sign.”
“I apologize. I don’t think we did a good job on any of that stuff,” Hickenlooper added.
When pressed by one member of the audience, Larimer County Sheriff Justin Smith, Hickenlooper worked blue.
“What the fuck?” the governor said. “I apologized!”
The governor’s office told reporters that Hickenlooper was joking, but Smith wrote on his Facebook page that he did not find the matter funny.
“I’m a big boy and I won’t pretend for a moment that it’s not language that’s foreign to me—but I found that type of attitude and response to be well below the dignity of the office of governor,” Smith wrote. “This was a sitting governor, in a public meeting, responding to another elected official.”
The measures that Colorado passed in 2013 limited the sale of high-capacity magazine clips of the kind that made the violence and destruction at the Aurora movie-theater shooting much worse than it ordinarily would have been. The bills also included increased background checks on gun purchases and a limit of sales to people convicted of domestic violence.
To the sheriffs, the governor expressed doubt that the high-capacity magazine ban could be enforced, and said that the only reason he pushed for it was because a staff member had said he would, and the governor then felt obligated.
At the time of the passage, Hickenlooper was hailed by gun-control activists, especially New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg’s Mayors Against Illegal Guns group. Hickenlooper told the sheriffs, however, that Bloomberg had nothing to do with what happened in Colorado.
Conservative news outlets revealed this week that in fact phone logs from the governor’s office showed that Hickenlooper had several conversations with the New York mayor.
A spokesman for the governor clarified the governor’s remarks to a Denver television station.
“The governor often jokes about his ability to put his foot in his mouth, because he does,” said Eric Brown, the spokesman. “It is well established that Gov. Hickenlooper spoke with Mayor Bloomberg, as well as NRA President [David] Keene and many other stakeholders in the gun-safety debate. In fact, the governor released phone records on this matter.”
“When the governor told an audience of sheriffs that he had not talked to Bloomberg, the governor was attempting to convey he never had a conversation with Bloomberg that influenced the decision he made,” Brown added. “In no way did the governor intend to mislead the sheriffs or anyone else.”
After the gun-control bills were signed into law last year, Colorado became ground zero for the fight over gun safety, with gun-rights activists pushing for the recall of two state lawmakers who supported the measures. Both lawmakers were defeated, despite a major infusion of resources from Bloomberg and other gun-control supporters.
Hickenlooper is up for reelection in 2014 in a state that remains deeply divided politically. Yet most political prognosticators do not think he is likely to lose this November.
Perhaps for that reason, even some of Colorado’s most ardent advocates for gun control were muted into their criticism of the governor.
“I don’t know what to make of it,” said Tom Mauser, whose son, Daniel, was murdered in the Columbine High School shooting in 1999, and who has met with President Obama to push for more gun-safety laws. “It is certainly a very contentious issue. I think that for the average person they think there should be a right to bear arms, but they also understand that there should be limitations on guns. But in the political world, there is so much hand-wringing. It is tough to get things done.”
He noted that the governor hailed the measures while signing them, and suggested that perhaps the governor was just playing to his audience. “I am just confused,” he said.
Eileen McCarron, the president of Ceasefire Colorado, the state’s leading gun-control group, criticized the sheriffs for saying that they were not involved in the planning and drafting of the bills, but declined to criticize Hickenlooper for not standing behind his previous actions and words.
“These comments were largely about process issues,” she said. “This was a conversation between the governor and the sheriffs and we don’t have a comment on it.”
The National Rifle Association, meanwhile, seized on the comments as proof that Hickenlooper is tailoring his gun message to his audience, calling the remarks part of a “desperate tap dance.”
“By doing one thing as governor and then saying another on the campaign trail, Hickenlooper is clearly demonstrating that he has no credibility when it comes to protecting our Second Amendment freedoms,” said Catherine Mortensen, spokesperson for the NRA.
But perhaps another errant remark by Hickenlooper recorded at the meeting sums up the whole imbroglio best.
“If we had known that this was going to divide the state so intensely,” Hickenlooper said. “I think we would have thought about it twice.”