Column: Gun-control advocates need to learn from pair of recall defeats in Colorado

Farm Forum

In Colorado, the gun lobby has taken its revenge.

The NRA and other pressure groups financed and helped organize the first recall campaigns allowed under Colorado law to take out two key Democratic state senators, John Morse — the upper chamber’s president — and Angela Giron.

What offense had these legislators committed? They supported legislation that limited the capacity of ammunition magazines to 15 rounds and mandated universal background checks on gun purchases.

Gun rights groups wasted no time in crowing about these victories, even though they will not wrest the legislature from Democratic control. “The people of Colorado Springs sent a clear message to the Senate leader that his primary job was to defend their rights and freedoms and that he is ultimately accountable to them, his constituents, and not to the dollars or social engineering agendas of anti-gun billionaires,” read a statement from the NRA.

Actually, the message was anything but clearly from “the people.” Turnout in Morse’s district was 21 percent and in Giron’s it was 35 percent. Large amounts of money flowed into the recall efforts from both pro- and anti-gun control groups from out of state. The recall drive had originally targeted four legislators, but only ended up mustering enough signatures to go after Morse and Giron.

Still, the recall should be a wakeup call for gun control advocates everywhere.

Future legislative efforts need to be accompanied by massive voter education on how current gun laws affect crime, and how they inadequately address mental health and a whole range of other problems. Gun violence is a very complicated issue — much more complex than the shallow sloganeering of the public debate can fathom — and it’s not enough simply to muster enough votes to pass laws if a vocal and well-funded minority can prevail in single-issue campaigns by exploiting ignorance and fear.

Unfortunately, we should expect recall campaigns to be a more common strategy in the politics of gun control. Eighteen states currently have laws that allow the recall of elected officials; if recall efforts prove fruitful, look for conservatives to attempt to pass recall laws in other states.

If that happens, politicians will have more to fear in applying common sense thinking to public health and safety issues. Tread carelessly on some group’s hot button issue, and you will have a target on your back. And the people taking potshots will not just be constituents, but motivated and deep-pocketed adversaries from all over the country.

As a consequence, gun control legislation will need to be more carefully conceived, it will have to be constantly defended, and that the constituency for it will need to be motivated and vigilant against backlash.

A large part of the impetus for the Colorado gun legislation (and perhaps other laws around the country) was the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut. Morse pointed to that motivation after his recall defeat. “We can’t continue to bury our children,” he said.

Surely, that’s a sentiment even those who voted for his recall could agree with. But a disconnect remains — between what current law permits (and new laws could reasonably prevent) and the question of rights and responsibilities. That’s where the hard work needs to begin.

Gun ownership is most certainly a right, guaranteed under the Second Amendment. But it also comes with responsibilities. Background checks, limits to rounds and other regulations can have positive effects on public safety. Yet, time and again, opponents successfully present these measures as an unfair burden to lawful gun owners.

In Colorado, many county sheriffs (who are elected officials) fought vigorously against the new legislation. They claimed that it was unenforceable and that it targeted the wrong people — certainly a problem, if true. The influence and esteem of the sheriffs probably played a big role in the recall votes. Whether their opinions on the legislation reflected valid concerns, however, or rather their own libertarian preconceptions is a question for debate.

What’s also clear is that gun control advocates need to learn from defeats like the ones they were handed in Colorado. They must seek to make better laws, which means consulting with the local officials who will have to enforce the laws (up to a point — a sheriff is a sheriff, not a constitutional scholar or Supreme Court justice). And they need to keep the public informed and alert about what’s at stake. In the Colorado counties where the recalls succeeded, opinion on key gun control issues was evenly divided; what wasn’t evenly distributed was a sense of urgency.

As for recalls and what they will do to our political culture, it’s anybody’s guess. It is already horrendously draining, financially and psychologically, to run for office. This is the era of “gotcha” YouTube traps, the gossip-spreading abilities of the Internet and high dollar fund-raising. Those factors alone dissuade many of the most ethical, moral and intellectually solid candidates of any political persuasion from running for office. Why would a sane, rationale person submit to such a life?

Mary Sanchez is an opinion-page columnist for The Kansas City Star. Readers may write to her at: Kansas City Star, 1729 Grand Blvd., Kansas City, Mo. 64108-1413, or via email at