Washington: The city of Boulder, Colorado, barred assault weapons in 2018, as a way to prevent mass shootings like the one that killed 17 at a high school in Parkland., Fla., earlier that year.
But 10 days after that ban was blocked in court, the city was rocked by its own tragedy: 10 people, including a Boulder police officer, were killed at a supermarket in the city’s south end on Monday after a gunman opened fire, law enforcement officials said.
As of early Tuesday, police have yet to identify the suspect or release any details about his weapon, how he purchased it, or if the ordinance would have prevented him from buying or possessing the weapon within city limits. Police told the Denver Post and CNN that he was reported to have been carrying a rifle.
Yet, for Dawn Reinfeld, co-founder of the Colorado gun violence prevention group Blue Rising,the “appalling” timing of the court decision was hard to ignore.
“We tried to protect our city,” she told The Washington Post. “It’s so tragic to see the legislation struck down, and days later, to have our city experience exactly what we were trying to prevent.”
Rachel Friend, a city council member, made a similar observation on Twitter, adding that she was “heartsick and angry and mostly so, so sad.”
But the Colorado State Shooting Association, one of the plaintiffs that sued Boulder over the assault weapons ban, rejected that sentiment, arguing in a statement that “emotional sensationalism” about gun laws would cloud remembrance of the victims.
“There will be a time for the debate on gun laws. There will be a time for the discussion on motives. There will be a time for a conversation on how this could have been prevented,” the group said in a statement. “But today is not the time.”
The three-year court fight over Boulder’s ordinance seems likely to preview a similar public debate over whether new gun control measures are warranted after the latest attack in a part of the country that has seen many such incidents, with several politicians already calling for legislative responses on Monday.
The North Central region of Colorado has seen as many as nine school shootings since the Columbine massacre in 1999, which left 12 students and a teacher dead. Four other major shootings have occurred within 20 miles of the high school, including a 2012 shooting at a movie theater in Aurora that left 12 dead.
The earliest of those incidents, as well as the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida in 2018, pushed Boulder officials to take action. Some said they wanted to prevent a similar from massacre from occurring again.
“I hope and pray we never have a mass shooting in Boulder,” City Attorney Tom Carr told the Daily Camera in March 2018. “What this ordinance is about is reducing, on the margins, the ease with which somebody could do that.”
With unanimous support from the council, the law banned the possession, transfer and sale of most shotguns and certain pistols and semiautomatic rifles with pistol grips, a thumbhole stock, or any protruding grip that allows a weapon to be stabilised with the non-trigger hand.
It also established a permit system for people who had previously owned any of those guns and banned large-capacity magazines, which it defined as “any ammunition-feeding device with the capacity to accept more than 10 rounds.”
“If you look at most of the mass shootings, the guns were purchased legally,” Carr said. “I see this as an ordinance that throws in one more barrier to someone who’s contemplating such a horrible act.”
While city officials had acknowledged that the law faced likely legal challenges, they pointed to the city’s home-rule provisions as well as its history of trailblazing on liberal issues, like the issuance of same-sex marriage licenses.
With few steps taken by state or federal government officials, “we had to start somewhere,” Reinfeld said. “When there continues to be mass shootings, when do we take a stand?”
The ordinance generated vigorous opposition from gun rights activists across the state. On the day of the vote, advocates from around Colorado descended on Boulder, many of them carrying concealed rifles with them into city government buildings.
A month after it passed, the law was challenged in state district court by two Boulder residents, a local gun shop and the Colorado State Shooting Association, according to the Denver Post. Richard A. Westfall, the residents’ attorney, did not immediately respond to a message from The Post early on Tuesday.
On March 12, Boulder County District Judge Andrew Hartman sided with the plaintiffs, saying that, according to a 2003 Colorado state law, cities and counties cannot restrict guns that are otherwise legal under federal and state law.
The “need for statewide uniformity favors the state’s interest in regulating assault weapons,” Hartman wrote. He said Boulder’s ordinance could “create a ripple effect across the state” by encouraging other municipalities to pass their own bans.
The National Rifle Association cheered the ruling on Twitter last week, noting that its lobbying arm had supported the lawsuit against the ban.
The day after Hartman’s ruling, city officials instructed Boulder police to stop enforcing the ban. Carr, the city attorney, declined to comment on whether he planned to appeal the decision.
But in the wake of the Boulder shooting, gun violence prevention advocates said the importance of preserving such a ban had only become more evident.
Colorado Democratic state Rep. Tom Sullivan, who ran for office after his son Alex was killed in the Aurora movie theater shooting, said he helped lobby the statehouse in Denver for background checks and magazine limits. Neither Congress nor the state legislature, he noted, had the political capital to go as far as Boulder City Council.
“The assault weapons put the ‘mass’ in the ‘shootings,’” he told The Post. “That’s what gets the numbers up. That’s what gets the assault weapons that were able to fire as many rounds as were fired ... in the theatre, in the schools, in Parkland.”