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How Columbine Reshaped Gun Politics

January 10, 2000

DENVER (AP) _ Last April, Gov. Bill Owens was sitting in his office, ready to sign legislation to expand the right to carry concealed firearms. Then gunshots rang out at Columbine High School.

The Republican governor didn’t sign the measure on his desk, and asked lawmakers to take all gun legislation off the table, which they did.

Now, nine months later, Owens has come out in support of gun-control measures.

And despite some opposition from Owens’ party, which controls both houses of the state Legislature, the measures have a pretty good chance of passing.

Columbine has clearly changed the politics of gun control in Colorado, a Western state that has long cherished the Second Amendment.

``If you look at before Columbine, the Legislature was looking at laws to make at least concealed weapons and some other aspects of guns easier,″ political pollster Paul Talmey said Monday. ``Whereas, today they are looking at a whole series of bills that would regulate guns, gun purchases.″

Owens said Columbine forced officials to ``look at what we have on the books and ask ourselves, `Are there areas where in fact, given this new examination, where we do have some loopholes?′ And in fact, I think there are.″

Two teen-age gunmen stormed Columbine High School in suburban Littleton on April 20, killing 12 classmates and a teacher before committing suicide.

In the aftermath, Owens did his homework on weapons laws.

``I couldn’t have told you what a straw purchase was before Columbine,″ he said, referring to the practice of buying a gun for someone who legally cannot do so. Owens also said he was unaware that background checks were not conducted by unlicensed gun dealers at gun shows.

Now Owens is proposing to ban straw purchases, require safe storage of firearms, raise the age to buy a handgun from 18 to 21, include juvenile records in background checks and require criminal background checks at gun shows.

``These are key proposals from him that would not have been considered a year ago,″ said Rep. Diana DeGette, D-Colo., who has fought for gun control laws at the state and federal level since 1992.

``When I was in the Legislature, any bill that came to the House and the NRA didn’t support it, it was DOA. Now we have a Republican supporting gun restrictions. That is extraordinary in Colorado,″ she added.

Columbine seemed to give gun-control bills a similar boost in other states.

For example, even gun control advocates were surprised when California legislators passed bills limiting handgun sales to one a month and strengthening the assault weapons ban. And in Pennsylvania, a bill requiring gun buyers to purchase trigger locks passed last year after failing in a previous session.

One of the Republicans who opposes Owens’ measures is state Sen. Maryanne Tebedo, who sponsored a concealed-carry measure last year. She acknowledged that the issue has become emotionally charged because of Columbine but plans to try to pass the bill again.

Ms. Tebedo said having background checks at gun shows would force people to buy guns illegally and added that conservatives see safe-storage regulations as an intrusive step by the government.

``My constituents are telling me not to vote for any gun control,″ she said.

Other opponents of gun-control laws, including the National Rifle Association, are accusing advocates of trying to exploit Columbine.

``Advocates for more restrictive gun control will use whatever horrible tragedy there is in the media to push their legislative agenda,″ said NRA chief lobbyist James Baker.

``I don’t think you can dismiss Columbine. It raised the profile of the issue even higher than it was. But I don’t think the politics of the issue have changed at all,″ he said.