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THE NATION

Colorado caught in gun debate crossfire

Aurora, Columbine and firearms-friendly people make the issue especially divisive.

March 06, 2013|Mark Z. Barabak
  • Dave Hoover, who lost a nephew in the Aurora, Colo., theater massacre, is passionate about new gun control legislation. But guns are part of Colorado's culture, and many don't see things his way.
Dave Hoover, who lost a nephew in the Aurora, Colo., theater massacre, is… (Marc Piscotty / Getty Images )

AURORA, COLO. — When it comes to guns and gun control, Roger Binford and Dave Hoover agree on very little.

Binford, 59, a self-employed electrical contractor, owns more than half a dozen guns and feels so strongly about the right to bear arms that he recently spent part of his birthday at the state Capitol, arriving early for a debate on proposed restrictions. "I don't think what I have in my house is anybody's business," Binford said.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday, March 09, 2013 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 4 News Desk 2 inches; 82 words Type of Material: Correction
Gun control: In the March 6 Section A, an article about the gun control debate in Colorado misstated Republican Rep. Mike Coffman's position on immigration reform by saying he had endorsed a path to citizenship for undocumented residents. While Coffman has expressed support for a pathway to citizenship for the children of people in the country illegally, he said he has not "resolved the question about a pathway to citizenship" for adults who have overstayed their visa or entered the country illegally.

Hoover, 51, a police sergeant who organizes an annual hunt with friends, has a frozen piece of pizza he can't bear to throw away. His nephew, AJ Boik, saved it for his uncle before going to a midnight showing of the new Batman movie, where he was shot and killed in July along with 11 others. "What I'd like to see is some reasonable legislation," Hoover said.

What the two men share is a close eye on their new congressman, Rep. Mike Coffman, to see what he does -- or does not do -- as lawmakers in Washington consider measures that would expand background checks for gun sales and ban assault-type weapons and high-capacity magazines, like those used at the Aurora movie theater.

After a horrific spate of mass shootings, Democrats believe the politics surrounding guns have shifted, offering the best opportunity in nearly 20 years to pass far-reaching federal legislation. Doing so, however, will require the support of at least several moderate to conservative Democrats from the South and West, where guns are deeply woven into the culture, as well as some Republicans willing to risk the wrath of the National Rifle Assn.

Few lawmakers are likely to feel as cross-pressured as Coffman. A conservative Republican who used to boast of his A+ NRA rating, he represents a redrawn district that is home to Aurora and its now-infamous theater, along with many victims. In 2014, he faces what will likely be one of the hardest-fought congressional races in the country.

"Right now it's probably the No. 1 issue for me," Binford said of the gun debate. "This is going to have a huge influence on how I vote," Hoover echoed.

In many ways, Colorado perfectly captures the complex, emotion-laden political fight surrounding guns. It is, in the vernacular, more purple than red or blue -- a battleground in presidential contests and a mix of city, suburb and rural redoubt where no party dominates.

For many, guns are not feared so much as revered: a symbol of freedom and independence and the pioneer struggle to tame an unruly landscape. A day at the family shooting gallery is as natural for some Coloradans "as for Easterners taking a walk in Central Park," said Jill Hanauer, a Democratic strategist and gun control advocate.

At the same time, the state has experienced two of the worst spasms of gun violence in the last 20 years -- Aurora and the Columbine High School massacre in 1999 -- which, as Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper noted during a recent panel discussion, "brings the debate over guns into sharp focus."

Moved by the Aurora shooting and the December attack in Newtown, Conn., the Democratic-run state House has passed a handful of gun control measures, including a limit on ammunition magazines and a requirement for universal background checks, to be financed by gun purchasers. Hickenlooper, while publicly noncommittal, is expected to sign the measures if they pass the Democratic-controlled Senate.

For Coffman's constituents, the Statehouse debate has taken place virtually outside their door.

His suburban district, drawn after the 2010 census, sprawls on three sides around Denver, the state capital. It is largely middle-class, with a few affluent pockets and a burgeoning Latino population, and registration is almost evenly split among Democrats, Republicans and unaffiliated voters, like the state itself.

The political landscape sharply contrasts with the safe GOP district the three-term lawmaker used to represent; it was the kind of place where Coffman could be applauded for raising the spurious charge that President Obama was not born in the United States. "I do know ... that in his heart, he's not an American," Coffman said, later apologizing after his remarks at a fundraiser in May were captured on tape.

Since starting to represent his new district -- he barely survived in November against a weak opponent -- Coffman has changed his position on immigration reform, endorsing a pathway to citizenship for those in the country illegally, as well as their children. On guns, however, he has been largely silent. He declined to be interviewed for this article.

Hoover, the Aurora victim's uncle, met with his congressman during a recent trip to Washington. He said Coffman "seemed to be understanding" as Hoover argued for universal background checks and a nationwide ban on assault-style weapons and large-capacity magazines. Coffman's response, however, "was this was something the states should deal with," Hoover said.

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