The Way the Gun Fight Was Won in Colorado

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President Obama's trip to Denver today to lift up Colorado as "a model of what's possible" on gun control in D.C. The interesting comparison, though, isn't why Congress won't stand up to the NRA — that answer is obvious — but what happened to the Rocky Mountain Gun Owners, the state's gun lobby that is, if anything, more radical than the NRA. 

In its public statements in recent days, the group seems to be desperately trying to figure that out itself. On Wednesday morning, RMGO's Dudley Brown was on NPR promising to retaliate against gun grabbers. "I liken it to the proverbial hunting season," Brown says. "We tell gun owners, 'There's a time to hunt deer. And the next election is the time to hunt Democrats.'" That bravado, however, could mask panic because the group finds itself in an unfamiliar position: losing. 

After James Holmes massacred moviegoers at a movie theater in Aurora, Colorado, the Rocky Mountain Gun Owners, like the NRA after Sandy Hook Elementary mass shooting, was confident that it could head off any call for new gun laws. Jim Merlino, who worked as Democratic policy director for the Colorado Senate minority in 2003, described the clout of the RMGO: "Out here in Colorado, the National Rifle Association is considered a left-wing Washington-based organization." He added, "In Colorado, our gun laws were written to work for the RMGO and given the force of law by the Republican Party."  Merlino predicted, "if you now think that meaningful gun control can emerge in Colorado – you’re dreaming." 

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In a way, Merlino was right. New gun laws didn't pass after Aurora. But Colorado did pass 15-round limits on magazines and expand background checks in March after the Sandy Hook shootings. Obama hailed this in his Denver speech Wednesday, saying, "Colorado has already chosen to do something about" gun violence, and proven that "there doesn't have to be a conflict between protecting our citizens and protecting out Second Amendment rights." But the more important conflict is between public opinion and gun lobby groups' clout. RMGO promised to "fight tooth and nail" any new gun laws in December. Whether it can punish lawmakers for voting for the new laws by ousting them from office in 2014 has yet to be seen. But unlike many members of Congress, state lawmakers are willing to risk it.

RMGO is still trying to throw its weight around the Colorado statehouse. RMGO political director Joe Neville walked out of an ethics hearing Wednesday, declaring it unlawful. "I've decided not to be the model penitent for your unconstitutional tribunal,"  Neville said. He's facing an ethics charge because Republican state Rep. Cheri Gerou filed a complaint against him. She says she told Neville to "[bleep] off," and Neville told her, You just earned yourself another round of mailers in your district." Gerou says that remark violates Rule 36, which forbids lobbyists from trying to influence lawmakers "by means of deceit or threat," the Denver Post explains. Neville's walkout is pretty spectacular. But so is a Republican lawmaker telling a gun rights group to bleep off.

Maybe Sandy Hook really did change everything, and empowered Colorado lawmakers to pass new gun rules. But it's more likely that Colorado itself has been slowly changing, despite Merlino's image of it as a cartoon Wild West. Colorado legalized marijuana in November. It voted for Barack Obama twice. Its speaker of the state House of Representatives is openly gay. And RMGO is on the wrong side of that cultural change. Two gay men have filed a federal lawsuit after a conservative group in Colorado lifted their wedding photo and used in campaign mailers to attack Republicans. On Wednesday, the men's lawyers filed a motion in U.S. District Court in Denver to add RMGO to the suit, after email records showed RMGO's Dudley Brown was involved in creating the mailers (pictured at right). According to the Denver Post, in one email, Brown told Public Advocate, the group that sent the mailers:

"[The] gay lobby smells blood in the water, and if some pro-gay legislators don't lose their primaries, I fear Colorado will tumble in the 2013 session... 

What I propose is that PA pay for mailing. ... My staff and I would do all the work, but we'd want PA to sign off, put its name on the dotted line, and pay for the mailings. I would counsel mailing slick and glossies, with the 'two men kissing' photo."

Brown's culture war seems doomed. He can be hopeful that the U.S. Congress has not changed as fast as Colorado. 

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.