Denver Government

Denver Council Could Ban Concealed Carry on City Property

Denver has long crafted laws around guns.
Denver has long crafted laws around guns. Photo by Bermix Studio on Unsplash
Mayor Michael Hancock wants to ban concealed firearms in any city buildings, including those leased to and by the city, as well as in Denver parks. It's part of his 2022 Public Safety Action Plan, which earlier successfully banned ghost guns.

On April 27, Denver City Council Safety, Housing, Education & Homelessness Committee approved sending the proposed concealed-carry ban to the full council on May 9; a final vote is slated for May 16.

If the ordinance passes, it will be far from the first time that the city has taken aim at guns. Here are some key moments in Denver's long history of firearms regulations:

Aurora Courtroom Shooting

In January 1986, learning that a judge would be granting a divorce to his wife, Dianna, off-duty Aurora police officer Gerald Lee Utesch went to the Arapahoe County Courthouse, pulled out a .38 caliber pistol and shot Jeanne Elliott, the 37-year-old attorney who was representing his wife. Elliott was hit by four bullets but survived, though she was paralyzed. A jury convicted Utesch of first-degree assault and attempted second-degree murder.

But the ramifications were felt around the state, where courtroom security had been lax. "Right after that, we put up metal detectors" at the City and County Building, recalls Denver City Councilman Kevin Flynn, who was a journalist with the Rocky Mountain News at the time. "I remember writing the story about that at the Rocky, because we put up metal detectors because this guy shot his wife’s divorce attorney. ... One of the exceptions to carrying guns in the building was law enforcement."

Although Flynn says he supports banning concealed carry in city buildings, he points out that cops will still be able to flash a badge and enter with a gun.

Assault Weapons Ban

In November 1989, Denver City Council voted 9-4 to ban the sale and possession of semi-automatic assault weapons in the city. The vote came after failed attempts at the Colorado Legislature to enact a statewide assault weapons ban.

Hundreds of people came out for the public hearing before the final vote, offering emotional arguments for and against the proposal. Some of those who testified attacked the bill's sponsor, Councilwoman Cathy Reynolds. The following month, council approved new rules regarding decorum at meetings.

In 1993, a Denver District Court judge overturned the assault weapons ban, ruling the ordinance unconstitutional. A year later, the Colorado Supreme Court reinstated the law.

"Putting aside the merits, the bill was miserably written," says David Kopel, now the research director at the Independence Institute; he was an assistant Colorado attorney general at the time and argued in court in favor of overturning the ban. "Denver ended up rewriting the ordinance in terms that were much clearer and avoided a lot of the vagueness problems."

In 1994, Congress passed legislation to ban assault weapons for ten years.

Guns in Vehicles

The City of Denver has long had a reputation for having the toughest gun laws in Colorado, and that reputation peaked in the 1990s.

"Denver got super-aggressive in the ’90s on forfeiture," says Kopel. "There were huge abuses in Denver in the 1990s." For example, people who lived outside the city but were traveling through to go hunting were at risk of having their hunting rifles seized by Denver cops because of a law related to possession of firearms in vehicles.

The state legislature was looking at fixing this issue in 1999, but then the Columbine shootings took place, and gun proposals were sidelined for the rest of the legislative session. In 2000, the legislature passed a bill that guaranteed people the right to drive through Denver with a firearm in their cars without fear of getting arrested, as long as the trip began outside city limits. Then-Governor Bill Owens signed it into law.

Concealed Carry and State Preemption

In 2003, the legislature passed more new gun laws aimed at Denver, including one that created a uniform concealed-carry permitting program that each county had to abide by.

"The bill that ended up getting enacted was mainly written by the County Sheriffs of Colorado. The bill was very much written with Denver in mind," says Kopel. The bill, which was signed into law by Owens, created a "shall issue" concealed-carry permitting program that established largely objective criteria for county sheriffs issuing permits.

That same year, Owens signed a bill into law that prohibited local municipalities from banning firearms that are lawful to possess under state law. In response, the City of Denver filed for an injunction in Denver District Court, asking a judge to declare that Denver's existing rules on guns should not be preempted by the new state laws, since Denver is a home-rule municipality.

In 2004, Judge Joseph E. Meyer ruled that Denver could have its own concealed-carry laws, but determined that they could not conflict with state laws. At the same time, Meyer upheld the city's right to ban open carry of firearms and also upheld the city's right to have an assault weapons ban on the books, despite both laws being more restrictive than state law. But Meyer also ruled that state law would take precedence over city firearms rules in city parks and that people with concealed-carry permits could legally possess their firearms in these parks, partially overturning a Denver policy that had been on the books since 1996.

In 2006, the Colorado Supreme Court deadlocked 3-3 on whether to overturn the district court decision, so the lower court's ruling remained in effect.

The Denver lawsuit did not touch on the part of the legislation passed in 2003 requiring municipalities to allow concealed-carry owners to enter public facilities, as long as there's no metal detector at the entrance. In other words, given the 2003 law, the only way that municipalities could fully ban guns from city buildings was to put in metal detectors. Many Denver-owned buildings have them today.

Bumping Bump Stocks

In 2018, Denver City Council voted to ban the sale and possession of bump stocks, a device that increases the fire rate of semi-automatic assault rifles. The vote came not long after a gunman in Las Vegas used a bump stock-equipped gun to kill sixty people.

The bill, which Hancock signed into law, was largely symbolic, since assault weapons — the guns to which you can attach bump stocks — were already banned in Denver.

Banning Ghost Guns

This January, Denver City Council voted to ban ghost guns, which are unserialized firearms that can be put together with parts bought online or made using 3D printers.

In the two years before the bill was introduced, the Denver Police Department had seized 38 ghost guns — about 2 percent of the firearms recovered during that time period. But crimes involving ghost guns can be tougher to solve because of the lack of a serial number that would link them to owners.

Today, the only legal guns in Denver must have serial numbers.
click to enlarge An unlicensed security guard shot and killed a protester by Civic Center Park in October 2020. - NOAH KAPLAN
An unlicensed security guard shot and killed a protester by Civic Center Park in October 2020.
Noah Kaplan

Restricting Concealed Carry

Today, Colorado law allows any resident at least 21 years of age who is not otherwise prohibited to have a firearm to apply for a concealed-carry permit. In 2021, however, the legislature passed a bill that allows local governments to ban even concealed-carry permit holders from entering public buildings or parks while possessing a handgun.

The Denver City Attorney’s Office then began crafting legislation that became the proposal now being considered by council: a ban on concealed carry in any building owned by, leased by or leased to the city, and also in Denver parks — including Denver Mountain Parks outside of the county — and park facilities.

Under this ordinance, a first offense for violating the rule would carry a $50 fine, which is the maximum penalty written into a state statute for a first strike. A second violation of the rule could carry up to a $999 fine and 300 days in jail. Law enforcement officials would be able to continue to carry weapons, and licensed security guards would be exempt if they are acting in the performance of their duties, according to the City Attorney’s Office.

Kopel, a longtime Second Amendment advocate, believes the City of Denver should wait until a current U.S. Supreme Court case related to gun laws is decided sometime over the summer before voting on the proposal. "They’d certainly be better off avoiding litigation," he says.

But the proposed ordinance already has a strong supporter in Councilwoman Robin Kniech. "I think our community is safer with fewer guns, and I think public safety is best protected by those with training. We have some issues with our public safety needing more of that training and more accountability themselves, but that doesn’t mean that I'm ready to turn over the safety of our parks and public spaces to those with no training and without the accountability that we have for our safety officers for the city," Kniech said at an April 13 committee hearing.

At that meeting, the committee voted to postpone a final decision until April 27, asking the City Attorney's Office to provide answers to questions and more data. Kopel provided some of the requested data in an open letter, noting that under the 2003 statute creating Colorado’s current system of licensed carry, sheriffs are required to make annual reports to the legislature. “For 2020, the statewide total was 37,909 new permits issued, and 23,141 renewals. (Permits are valid for 5 years.) In that same period, there were 348 revocations,” he noted. “The majority (196) were for arrests. In Denver, there were 1,685 permits issued and 470 renewals. There was one revocation of a Denver permit in 2020, under the category “mental illness or addiction.” After doing some math, Kopel asserted that a Coloradan with a concealed handgun permit is about 39 times less likely to be arrested than a Coloradan in general.

According to the Denver Police Department, there are about 10,792 active concealed-carry permits in Denver.

But questions remained at the April 27 meeting, though members voted to send it to the full council.

In particular, Flynn repeated doubts about the need for the ban in city parks, especially Denver's mountain parks. "I think we're out over the tips of our skis, basically," Flynn had said at the April 13 meeting. "Prohibiting concealed carry in parks was not in the plan, but it's going to be in the plan. I would like to see data, because I don't want to just legislate based on feelings that this might be the right thing. I want to know: Is it going to do anything productive?"

All thirteen councilmembers will have a chance to provide an answer to that question on May 16, when they take a final vote on the bill.

This story was originally published on April 27; it has been updated to reflect the committee's approval of sending the measure to the full Denver City Council.
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Conor McCormick-Cavanagh is a staff writer at Westword, where he covers a range of beats, including local politics, immigration and homelessness. He previously worked as a journalist in Tunisia and loves to talk New York sports.