Saturday, February 16, 2013

COMMENTARY: Legislators should obey capitol gun ban

The news that some legislators are carrying concealed weapons inside the state capitol is deeply disappointing to every citizen of Colorado who believes that the law must apply equally to all.

This state's concealed carry law is very clear on the point: guns are not permitted in the capitol building. Here is the text of C.R.S. 18-12-105(1):

(1) A person commits a class 2 misdemeanor if such person knowingly and unlawfully:. . .
(c) Without legal authority, carries, brings, or has in such person's possession a firearm or any explosive, incendiary, or other dangerous device on the property of or within any building in which the chambers, galleries, or offices of the general assembly, or either house thereof, are located, or in which a legislative hearing or meeting is being or is to be conducted, or in which the official office of any member, officer, or employee of the general assembly is located.

There is no exception in the language of this law for state legislators. There is no statutory language that authorizes the state police, which guard the entrances to the building, to overlook the carrying of guns into the capitol by anyone, even legislators. There has been no regulation by any state agency, including the state Department of Public Safety, that purports to exempt legislators from the statute's reach. No court of this state has declared that the statute cannot constitutionally be applied to legislators while they are in the capitol building.

It is true that the state police have not set up metal detectors, nor posted guards, at the doors through which legislators may enter by means of an access code or digital identification card.

This, however, is no excuse for legislators to break the law. After all, if legislators believe that the law is only to be honored when an enforcer of it is nearby to make sure that it is, the message they are sending is that compliance with the law is at the whim of the individual.

It is regrettable that there are public servants - people who hold a position of high public trust - who apparently have concluded that they are not bound by the laws they write. It is to be hoped that those who have the authority to enforce the law will act in a way that shows their understanding of one of the most fundamental principles of a democratic republic. As Aristotle wrote, centuries ago, "the only stable state is the one in which all men are equal before the law." That truism certainly extends, in the state of Colorado, to state senators and state representatives.

Members of the Colorado General Assembly should leave their guns at home. They have no place in the state capitol.

As for those who have arrogantly disregarded their sacred obligations under the law of the state they were elected to serve, attorney general John Suthers or Denver district attorney Mitch Morrissey should act to remind such scofflaws that they are not above that law.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Is Lt. Gov. Garcia headed to Washington?

Lieutenant governor Joe Garcia, in an enigmatic comment yesterday, may have hinted that he could soon be joining President Barack Obama's cabinet.

Education News Colorado reports this morning that Garcia, when asked by a Denver school board member whether he would be staying in his current job, said "I think my time is up."

Legislation to fix Colorado sex education standards to get House debate Thursday

A Denver Democrat will ask the House Thursday to approve legislation that would clarify what the state's public schools must teach about human sexuality.

The bill aims to eliminate disparities among districts and encourage schools to give children the knowledge they need to avoid pregnancy even if they become sexually active.

The bill's sponsor, Rep. Crisanta Duran, D-Denver, argued in a committee hearing last week that the measure is necessary to advance public health and to protect teenagers.

"Colorado youth still face many barriers in obtaining the medically accurate information and resources they need to make informed and responsible decisions and lead healthy lifestyles," she said.

Duran's proposal would not preclude instruction about abstinence.

“Abstinence is incredibly important. If you do not want unintended pregnancy, if you do not want to see the transmission of disease, then abstain from engaging in sexual activity,” Duran explained.

However, Duran pointed out that educators also need tools to help students who do choose to become sexually active.

"For those who choose to do so, we should be able to have an approach that really teaches them how to protect themselves," she said.

At the core of the legislation is a provision that conditions compliance on receipt of federal grant money.

The money would be dispersed to school districts or charter schools by the state's Department of Public Health and Environment.

"This is not an unfunded mandate," Duran said.

One notable feature of HB 13-1081 is a clause that puts the burden on parents to excuse their children from sex education classes. Under current law a student is not permitted to learn about human reproductive behavior in school unless a parent gives permission in advance.

Republicans on the House Health, Insurance, and Environment Committee voted as a block against the bill last Thursday.

Former House majority leader Amy Stephens, R-Monument, led the GOP opposition to the legislation.

Among several arguments she advanced was one to the effect that any benefit of teaching children about the reproductive physiology of the human body is outweighed by the prospect that doing so may offend the religious sensibilities of some individuals.

Centennial Republican Spencer Swalm attacked the bill on grounds that it limits school districts to grants that advance the goal of comprehensive sex education. Duran disputed that argument, pointing out that the proposed statutory language would not prevent districts from working with external organizations that advocate for abstinence-only education.

The legislature last enacted a sex education bill in 2007. That one, however, did not require curricula used by public schools in the state to address the reality of homosexual and bisexual behavior among humans.

HB 13-1081 would correct that oversight, requiring that sex education programs in the state's public schools be "culturally sensitive."

That requirement, as well as the overall approach of the legislation, is based on a 2012 report on youth sexual activity issued by the state's Department of Public Health and Environment.

The sponsor of the 2007 bill, Nancy Todd, is now a senator from an Aurora-area district and is carrying HB 13-1081 in the Senate this year.

If the bill is approved on "second reading" Thursday then it must first be approved in another House vote before moving to the Senate.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Democrats' package of four gun control bills to be debated on House floor Friday

The set of four big firearms bills introduced by House Democrats will be debated in that chamber on Friday.

The package includes measures that would limit the size of bullet magazines, require all purchasers of firearms to obtain a background check, force gun buyers to pay for the required background check, and make clear that the state's concealed carry law does not apply on the campuses of public colleges and universities.

If any or all of the bills are approved by the House on Friday, they will be calendared for a second vote in the chamber a few days later. The bills move to the Senate only if they are approved on both "second reading" and "third reading" in the House.

Lynn Bartels rounds up the fate of some interesting bills

The Denver Post's Lynn Bartels, doyenne of statehouse reporters, has posted a useful roundup of the General Assembly's handling of several recent bills.

Do yourself a favor and check it out.

Bill advancing fee for gun background check advances

The House Finance Committee has approved a bill that would require firearms purchasers to pay for the background check required by state law.

HB 13-1228 was cleared Wednesday afternoon on a 7-6, party-line vote.

The measure would force individuals subject to the background check mandate to pay a $10-12 fee associated with it.

Under current law the state's taxpayers pay for the background checks.

If enacted into law, the proposal would allow the state government to save about $1.5 million per year. That's according to an analysis prepared by the Colorado Legislative Council.

The measure is not without precedent. For several years prior to 1999 state law required those subject to the firearms background check to pay for it.

HB 13-1228 is sponsored by Rep. Lois Court, D-Denver.

House committee considers ban on firearms on college campuses

A House committee will examine Wednesday a bill that would ban firearms from all buildings and athletic facilities on the state's college campuses.

HB 13-1226 would overturn a 2012 state supreme court decision that applied Colorado's concealed carry law to higher education institutions.

The state's flagship college, the University of Colorado at Boulder, has wrestled with the requirement to accommodate concealed firearms.

"Certainly, given that we had a weapons ban in place for forty-plus years, there’s been thinking that banning weapons was a good thing," Ken McConnellogue, a vice president at CU, said.

McConnellogue said that CU forbids weapons in most residence halls and at Folsom Field and that administrators deal with arguments that they should be banned in other circumstances, too.

"The nuance of that, both with the residence hall and the football games, those are essentially contracts," he explained. "We have some discretion over that. There are many more. People say, you are banning them at football games, you can ban them at commencement. You can ban them at guest lectures. At the end of the day, the university is obliged to follow the law and we’re going to do that. The challenge for us is to determine how the law works within the particular environment."

Colorado State University applies limits similar to those in place on at CU's Boulder campus, according to spokesperson Mike Hooker.

"The places on campus where you’re not allowed to carry are the residence halls and our [in] basketball arena [or] during sporting events," he explained.

CSU opened the doors to possession of guns on its campus about nine years before last year's decision in Regents of the University of Colorado v. Students for Concealed Carry on Campus.

The bill's sponsor, Rep. Claire Levy, D-Boulder, believes that her proposal is essential if the state's universities are to effectively help students who may be suffering from emotional disturbance or mental illness.

"In the years since the Virginia Tech shooting Colorado and other states have responded with increased attention to the mental health needs of their college students," she said. "State colleges have created threat assessment teams so [that] students who are struggling with emotional problems can be identified and provided the help and support they need. But we haven't addressed one of the biggest threats to campus safety, which is the presence of guns on campuses."

The veteran legislator also explained that her bill is an effort to enhance student safety.

"The bill also recognizes that college students are at heightened risk of suicide and impulsive conduct, which the presence of guns will only exacerbate," Levy said.

At the CU-Boulder campus, suicide by gun has been a rare occurrence.

"Within the past seven years we know of two suicides where a firearm was used," Ryan Huff, a spokesperson for the campus police, said. "In both cases they were not students."

In general, young adults are at an elevated risk of suicide. According to a 2004 report from the Suicide Prevention Resource Center, suicide is the second-leading cause of death among college-age adults.

The CU experience indicates, however, that it is less likely to occur in the absence of firearms.

"Students are safer if there are no guns," Dr. Allan J. Schwartz, a professor of psychiatry and staff psychologist at the University of Rochester and the author of several studies that examine suicide risks among college-age young adults, said. "The evidence for that is pretty strong."

A representative of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention confirmed that assessment.

“We know that reducing a suicidal person’s easy access to lethal means, including firearms, can be an effective strategy for preventing suicide," John Madigan, AFSP's senior director of public policy said. "This is critical because it gives individuals and those who care for them something they desperately need – time: time to change their minds, time for them to get help or time for someone to intervene.”

The number of college students who attempt suicide, and succeed in taking their life, is thought to be about half of the equivalent rate among those who are not enrolled in higher education.

Schwartz explained that, across the nation as a whole, young adults who study on a college campus are not likely to have access to a gun.

"When you look at the proportion of suicides that are completed using a firearm, by students, as compared to the proportion of suicides that are completed using a firearm in the general population, matched by age and gender, for students it tends to be on the order of one-third as common," he said. "For the general population, firearms account for as many suicides as all other methods combined. For students, firearms remain one of the most likely methods, almost equal to suicide by hanging."

“Why is that the case?," Schwartz rhetorically asked. "It’s just a huge difference in the accessibility of firearms."

Most students who use a gun to take their own lives gain access to the weapon by traveling off-campus to their parents' home.

"Sometimes it’s a few tens of miles, sometimes it’s hundreds of miles," Schwartz said. "But it’s a frighteningly relevant story."

The likelihood that more firearms will be used in suicide attempts is not the only factor that raises the risks to student safety on college campuses that are required to allow guns.

According to one 2007 study, a person who attempts to take their own life with a firearm will succeed about 90 percent of the time, which is a rate that exceeds other methods that are commonly deployed in suicide attempts.

To Schwartz, these statistics demand that legislators treat the prevention of guns on college campuses as a public health imperative.

"To allow firearms on campus would be catastrophic," he argued. "It’s not just unwise public policy. You’d double the suicide rate."

Proponents of extending the concealed carry law to college campuses have argued that students are likely to be safer if they have the option of being armed.

"Allowing licensed concealed carry would give potential attackers pause and ultimately give innocent victims a fighting chance,” Students for Concealed Carry spokesperson David Burnett said in a statement.

One problem with this argument is that students face little risk of homicide on college campuses.

Schwartz explained that homicide is a rare event, statistically speaking, on college campuses everywhere in America.

"There are concerns that folks may have about protecting students from harm by others," Schwartz said. "The thinking goes, if they had a firearm, we wouldn’t have these slaughters like what took place at Virginia Tech. We’re talking about 20 homicides among about 10 million students every year. It's a horrific headline when it happens, but it virtually never happens. Can you imagine any city in the United States with 10 million people in which there are just 20 homicides each year? That’s what it’s like on college campuses. There’s virtually no homicide."

The situation on Colorado's public college campuses bears out Schwartz' assertion. There were no homicides on the CU-Boulder campus between 2009-2011, the most recent period for which data is available.

"The last homicide we had here was in 1997, involving two transients," Huff said. "A firearm was not used there.”

CSU experienced the same paucity of crimes involving a loss of life during the same three-year period.

A 2010 report of crime statistics from the University of Colorado at Denver, which is the most recent data available from that institution, revealed that no homicides occurred on the urban campus in Denver during the period 2007-2009.

Rapes and sexual assaults are occasional risks on college campuses in the state. Each of the major institutions on the Front Range report that several occurred during each of the years between 2009-2011.

Nevertheless, crimes involving the use of a gun appear to be rare on college campuses in Colorado.

"The frequency of crimes where guns are used is quite low on our campus,” Huff said.

Twenty-five states ban firearms on campus, while 23 others allow universities and colleges to set their own rules touching on gun possession. Two states - Colorado and Utah - require state institutions of higher learning to permit the concealed carry of firearms on campus.

Michael Carrigan, the chairperson of the CU Board of Regents, did not respond to a request for a comment about the regents' position on HB 13-1226.

Sen. Rollie Heath, D-Boulder, is carrying the bill in the Senate.

The fate of the legislation, should it clear the General Assembly and head to Gov. John Hickenlooper for signature into law, is not clear.

"We are monitoring this bill and have not taken an official position," Eric Brown, a spokesperson for Hickenlooper, said.

UPDATE (2:10 pm MST):

The House Education Committee approved HB 13-1226 on a 7-6 vote.

NOTE: A slightly different version of this article appears at