Aurora theater shooting: Latino officials backing Obama respond to gun control debate

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The thorny political territory of gun control can be especially challenging for President Barack Obama's cheerleaders in Colorado, where debates about access to guns have great local significance after James Holmes shot seventy people in an Aurora movie theater. Since the attack, Obama has called for a "common sense" approach to assault rifle sales -- though some argue it's not enough. What do Obama's Latino surrogates and supporters in Colorado have to say about it?

Obama and presumptive Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney have gotten pressure from the Mayors Against Illegal Guns coalition and local advocates in Colorado to offer more concrete policy solutions to the country's problem of gun violence.

Yet gun control remains a touchy subject politically, raising fears that a call for stricter gun laws will directly lead to a loss of votes -- a tension that's strong in Colorado, a key swing state that has experienced a terrible mass shooting just months before the presidential election. Note the story of concealed-carry advocate James Mapes, who was arrested in a Thornton movie theater this past weekend after other patrons saw his gun.

Here's a piece of what Obama had to say on gun control last Wednesday, five days after the shooting, while speaking at the National Urban League convention in New Orleans:

I, like most Americans, believe that the Second Amendment guarantees an individual the right to bear arms. I think we recognize the traditions of gun ownership that passed on from generation to generation. That hunting and shooting are part of a cherished national heritage. But I also believe that a lot of gun owners would agree that AK-47s belong in the hands of soldiers, not in the hands of criminals. That they belong on the battlefield of war, not on the streets of our cities. I believe the majority of gun owners would agree we should do everything possible to prevent criminals and fugitives from purchasing weapons, and we should check someone's criminal record before they can check out a gun seller.

At Obama campaign events over the weekend, Westword asked some of the elected officials campaigning for the president what they thought of these debates and whether the president has done enough.

Unsurprisingly, they are generally supportive -- though it's an issue that these politicians likely approach with great caution. (Governor Gov. John Hickenlooper had little to say about gun policy immediately following the tragedy).

Former Denver Mayor Federico Peña, who is also an Obama for America national campaign co-chair, told us he agrees with what the president has said so far.

"A conversation on gun policy needs to happen," Peña said at a Latinos for Obama lunch on Saturday afternoon. "What the president has said is he's been pushing the Congress, the current sitting Congress, to do more on background checks, and they're not doing anything. Because he feels if we can do a better job on background checks, we can hopefully catch people who have mental illness.... Those are the kinds of things we need to have a conversation about. The president has said we ought to have that and, in fact, he has been pushing the Congress to do more."

It's worth noting that Ed Perlmutter, the local congressman who represents Aurora, has called for stricter gun policies in the wake of the shooting, making him one of the first local elected officials to do so.

Page down to read comments on gun control from other Colorado supporters of Obama. State Representative Dan Pabon, also in attendance at the Obama lunch on Saturday, said, "I think the president is purposely not trying to politicize the issue, because the important thing right now is the victims and their families and the recovery for those who lived and making sure that they're okay."

In Pabon's view, "we're trying to learn from the incident, so weighing more on the gun control issue at this time, I think politicizes the issue, and I think the president's right.... He's been here to console the victims and their families and that's the right thing to do."

Pabon adds, "In Colorado, we are a pretty pro-Second Amendment state. I think we shouldn't be allowing military-type weapons in the hands of citizens and I think our gun control laws are pretty strong in Colorado. We've worked to make sure that assault-type, military-type weapons stay out of the hands of those who have criminal background checks and whatnot. We're always going to have people who unfortunately have mental illness. And that's the thing, we're still trying to figure out the facts.... I would hate to have a reactionary change until we know all the facts."

His comments echo those of Hickenlooper, who said that stricter gun control laws probably wouldn't have stopped Holmes.

In contrast, State Senator Lucia Guzman, who hosted the Latinos for Obama lunch at her home, said she would like to see more movement from Obama for stricter gun control laws.

"I would like to see him be a little bit more assertive about that. I mean, that's who Barack Obama is. That's who the Democrats are, so let's move forward," she said. "I'm sure they're looking at it politically from all sides. You don't want to lose any votes."

Some aspects of the debate are obvious to Guzman. "Why do we have assault weapons and why do we have them in places that are not the war areas? Why do we need them in neighborhoods?" she says. "We don't need them."

In reference to Obama's statements, she said she is glad he made it clear that these kinds of very powerful weapons belong on the battlefield and not in the hands of regular citizens.

But, Guzman added, "I didn't hear anything [from Obama] about...legislation."

One other way for Obama supporters to talk about gun control is to compare the president's statements to those of Romney who, when pressed by Piers Morgan last week, made it clear that he had no interest in changing gun policies at all:

Piers, I don't support new gun laws in our country. We have a lot of gun laws now. We have background checks and other restrictions on gun ownership in our country. But as you say, we have three hundred million guns in America. We have a second amendment that protects the right of people to bare arms. I support that. I think that the effort to continue to look for some law to somehow make violence go away is missing the point.

Grey's Anatomy actor Jesse Williams, who came to Denver on Saturday to support Obama, brought up this example (unprompted) when describing his concern about a possible Romney presidency.

"[Romney] is just stubborn on things that make no sense," Williams says, referring to his comments that he wouldn't support new gun laws. "It's a non-position. Your position is you're not gonna entertain ways to possibly improve our current situation? Watching him dance around NRA questions would be funny if it wasn't so dangerous, when you see how many people's pockets he's in."

More from our Aurora Theater Shooting archive: "James Holmes: 24 counts of first-degree murder, 116 counts of attempted murder"

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

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