Obama faces urban/rural, partisan gun-law divide

AP Photo/Susan Walsh

President Barack Obama shakes hands with police officers after speaking at the Denver Police Academy in Denver, Wednesday. Ratcheting up pressure for Congress to limit access to guns, Obama said that steps taken recently by Colorado to tighten its gun laws show "there doesn't have to be a conflict" between keeping citizens safe and protecting Second Amendment rights to gun ownership.

By Joe Hanel
Journal Denver Bureau

DENVER - President Barack Obama pressured Congress to vote on gun bills even as he tried to strike a conciliatory note with gun owners Wednesday, during his first trip to Colorado since he was re-elected.

He called on Congress to emulate the Colorado Legislature, which has already passed laws similar to the ones he is pushing - background checks for all gun sales and a size limit on ammunition magazines.

"Every day that we wait to do something about it, even more of our fellow citizens are stolen from our lives by a bullet from a gun," Obama said.

Colorado's bills passed without a single Republican vote, and only after the most heated and emotional debate that most current legislators have experienced.

The president held a discussion with several Coloradans before his speech, including Gov. John Hickenlooper, Lt. Gov. Joe Garcia, the mayors and police chiefs from Denver and Aurora, hunters, and the relatives of victims of the Aurora movie theater and Columbine High School massacres.

During the roundtable, Obama was especially interested in how to reach out to rural residents and hunters, Garcia said.

Obama said he can understand how rural residents need guns for protection when the police are far away. But many urban residents know guns only as instruments of tragedy, he said.

"Sometimes we're so divided between rural and urban, and folks whose hunting is part of their lives and folks whose only experience with guns is street crime," Obama said. "And more than anything, what I want to just emphasize is there are good people on both sides of this thing, but we have to be able to put ourselves in the other person's shoes."

He called on people to pressure their members of Congress to hold a vote on gun bills.

Both sides express confidence that they have public opinion on their side.

Republicans have painted Obama and vice president Joe Biden as out-of-state meddlers who don't understand Colorado.

"I'm sure most people wish that Democratic lawmakers would spend more time listening to their constituents, instead of the president and vice president," said Ryan Call, chairman of the Colorado Republican Committee, in a news release.

For his part, Obama cited surveys that show as many as 90 percent of American voters support mandatory background checks for all gun sales.

"These enhanced background checks won't stop all gun crimes, but they certainly will help prevent some," Obama said.

He spoke at the Denver Police Academy, which is a five-minute drive directly south of Bass Pro Shop, where accused Aurora theater shooter James Holmes bought two guns.

The store's ammunition shelves were half empty Wednesday and management was limiting the amount of rounds customers could purchase. Gun buyers across the country have seen the same thing for months, as worries about new laws are causing people to stock up on ammunition.

Holmes bought his guns legally, after passing a background check.

Even so, Senate Majority Leader Morgan Carroll, D-Aurora, said the Democrats' bills would have made it harder for Holmes to carry out his plan. Holmes used a 100-round drum in his rifle, which he would not have been able to buy legally under one of the bills Hickenlooper signed into law.

Also, the background check bill allows for much faster uploads of mental health data into the database the state uses to screen gun buyers, Carroll said.

Metro-area police officers filled the bleachers behind Obama.

However - in an illustration of the rural-urban divide that Obama talked about - the County Sheriffs of Colorado opposed the gun bills that city police chiefs tended to support.

Just before Obama spoke, more than a dozen county sheriffs decried his visit at a news conference.

Justin Smith, the sheriff of Larimer County, dismissed the visit as "a victory lap" and "a slap in the face to all Coloradans."

But Democrats showed little trepidation about appearing with Obama on Wednesday. The majority of the state's Democratic Senate caucus and some House Democrats attended the speech.

Senate President John Morse, D-Colorado Springs, said Colorado legislators provided an example for other states.

"You've got to figure out the right thing to do and get it done. It's not easy, but it's worth all the threats, all the tears, all the sleepless nights, to make your state safer," Morse said.

Democrats pointed to polls that show public support for the sort of laws they passed.

A Keating Research survey of Colorado voters in December showed 80 percent supported background checks on private gun sales, and 61 percent supported a ban on ammunition magazines of more than 10 rounds.

Keating Research polls for Democrats, but it had the most accurate polls of Colorado in the 2012 election. However, the gun poll was conducted just days after the elementary school massacre in Connecticut.


The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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