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Gun control: John Hickenlooper calls for debate following Newtown school shooting

In the immediate aftermath of the Aurora theater shooting, Governor John Hickenlooper said it was too soon to talk about gun control. He remained virtually silent until, in a Thursday interview calling for a debate on the topic. One day later, the unimaginable shooting in Connecticut that claimed the lives of twenty children took place, prompting him to expand on his comments.

On Friday, talking to reporters just hours after news broke about the tragic shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School -- which left 27 dead, most of them first graders -- Hickenlooper did not back down from his statement that the "time is right" for gun policy discussions. In Colorado. As he noted, it has been nearly five months since a gunman killed twelve and injured dozens more in a Colorado movie theater.

Hickenlooper, however, was short on specifics.

Governor John Hickenlooper addresses reporters at a pre-legislative forum on Friday.
Governor John Hickenlooper addresses reporters at a pre-legislative forum on Friday.
Sam Levin

In the July 20 Aurora tragedy, suspect James Holmes allegedly purchased one AR-15 assault rifle, one Remington 870 twelve-gauge shotgun and two 40-caliber Glock handguns in addition to thousands of rounds of ammunition -- all of which were discussed in the heated gun debate that followed in Colorado.

Hickenlooper said at the time that he wasn't sure stricter laws would've stopped Holmes from doing the damage he did. But gun control advocates in Colorado began pushing for policies that address the accessibility of guns and ammunition, especially assault weapons. Some called for better systems to prevent those with mental health problems from obtaining guns.

Asked about the topic in a wide-ranging interview with the Associated Press last week, Hickenloopersaid the the upcoming legislative cycle is the right time to consider new gun policies: "I wanted to have at least a couple of months off after the shooting in Aurora to let people process and grieve and get a little space, but it is, I think, now is the time is right."

He added that he'd like to include debates about assault rifles.

On Friday, Hickenlooper had a scheduled appearance and question-and-answer session with reporters as part of a pre-legislative forum -- and the topic of guns was sure to come up. But the stakes were raised given that the meeting began as details were still emerging about the Connecticut tragedy, in which alleged shooter Adam Lanza is suspected of using the same kind of assault rifle as Holmes.

Hickenlooper addressed the tragedy head-on at the start of his speech at the Crowne Plaza Denver Downtown. After a moment of silence, he said, "When you have a horrific and heartbreaking event like this, there are no words that can adequately express how people feel. Our prayers are immediately with the families."

When it was time to take questions, the first reporter noted that the two big topics of the day were marijuana and guns. That reporter asked about pot.

In the subsequent silence, Hickenlooper said, "All right. Who wants to ask the gun question?"

One asked how his personal perspective and the shooting in Connecticut would drive his agenda.

"Well, what I said a couple days ago was it felt like there had been enough time to begin a conversation," Hickenlooper pointed out. "What I'm really saying is to begin to collect the facts and try to make sure we're all playing from the same deck. One thing I've heard again and again around gun issues over the last couple of months, not everybody has the same factual basis.... People are unaware of some of the most basic facts around the issue."

Continue for more of Governor Hickenlooper's comments on gun control.   Hickenlooper said he had reached out to Connecticut Governor Dan Malloy to offer support -- though he said he recognized there's not much that can be done.

John Hickenlooper talks to reporters on his way out from the event.
John Hickenlooper talks to reporters on his way out from the event.
Sam Levin

"I'm gonna guess the one thing he would ask for is for us not to ramp up the debate right when he's...trying to work through the emotional issues of dozens and dozens...of families," Hickenlooper said.

The governor struggled to articulate how he thinks the school shooting should influence gun control conversations.

"We'll have plenty of time to discuss. I can't, I can't put into words how impossible it seems to me that this could happen again, so suddenly, so rapidly, and it is disconcerting," Hickenlooper continued. "Again, there's enough of a controversy out there and enough information to assimilate that I'm, you know, this is one of those things that I'm still upset enough about it just hearing about Connecticut that I haven't even been able to formulate my words."

One reporter asked, if tragedies keep happening, how can the discussion continually be postponed?

"I think that's a legitimate question. That's a fair point," he said.

Pressed on specifics -- if there are any proposals he will support in the upcoming cycle -- Hickenlooper didn't have anything concrete to say. (We reported last week on one proposal to ban guns from college buildings).

"I haven't seen a specific bill yet, not one," he said. "And I do think that part of the creation of the bill is part of that discussion. As you put ideas out on the table and try to work them into a law, you draw upon a reservoir of facts of information.... When I talked to a number of people on different sides of the issues...not everyone has the same factual basis. And I think that's one of our first steps.... As different laws are put forward, let's make sure everyone is using the same information."

Asked again about whether the nation can keep delaying the discussion, the governor interrupted the questioner, saying, "You have a shooting every two weeks, do you just never discuss it? No, I think that's a fair point."

He continued, "I can guarantee you, you're going to see ideas on both sides."

The governor noted that Colorado will likely hear arguments that more guns will reduce this kind of crime, because armed people can defend themselves against mass murderers and limit casualties.

"You're gonna hear every color under the spectrum over the next few months," he said. "And I think you're right, I think we can't postpone the discussion on a national level every time there's a shooting."

When a reporter said he would be asking about a different topic, the governor muttered, "Thank you."

Still, Hickenlooper was bombarded by reporters again on his way out, forcing him to respond to more gun questions and the Connecticut tragedy.

Can new legislation actually help reduce the chances of another Aurora or Newtown?

"If you don't start at some point, will you ever have an effect?" Hickenlooper said. "Now...that's not necessarily talking about gun violence. it might be talking about, how do we address people that have mental illness, making sure they don't have easy access to weapons?"

Before walking out of the lobby with his aides, Hickenlooper added about the Connecticut tragedy, "It's incomprehensible. When it first became clear this was a major event, my eyes just filled up.... And I'm sure that's happening to people all over Colorado. We've been through this."

More from our Politics archive: "Aurora's Steve Hogan: Why didn't he join anti-illegal gun mayors group after theater shooting?"

Follow Sam Levin on Twitter at @SamTLevin. E-mail the author at Sam.Levin@Westword.com.


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