Gun Mishaps Stack Up in Colorado Capitol Amid Effort to Ban Firearms | Westword

Armed in Assembly: Gun Mishaps Stack Up in Colorado Capitol Amid Effort to Ban Firearms From Building

Representative Don Wilson isn't the first state legislator to forget a loaded gun in the Colorado Capitol.
The statehouse has hosted gun thefts, lost firearms and debates with bulletproof vests.
The statehouse has hosted gun thefts, lost firearms and debates with bulletproof vests. Hannah Metzger

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Last week, a janitor in the Colorado State Capitol building discovered a loaded 9mm Glock handgun in a bathroom.

The gun was abandoned for around 23 minutes before the janitor found it, at a time when the Capitol entrances were closed but members of the public attending committee hearings were still allowed inside the building, according to law enforcement. Nearly an hour after the Colorado State Patrol retrieved the weapon, Republican Representative Don Wilson called to inform them that he had misplaced his firearm.

“I made a mistake and am very sorry,” Wilson said in a statement on April 11. “I take firearm safety very seriously. This is a humbling experience and I will reaffirm my commitment to responsible handling procedures.”

Wilson has agreed to no longer carry guns in the Capitol, according to House Majority Leader Monica Duran — and the rest of his colleagues may soon have to follow suit. Wilson's mishap is the latest in a series of incidents involving legislators mishandling firearms, and now, Democrats are pushing to get guns out of the building.

State Representative Don Wilson headshot.
Republican Representative Don Wilson of Monument.
Colorado Legislature
If made law, Senate Bill 131 would prohibit people from carrying a firearm — openly or concealed — in state legislative buildings, courthouses, schools and government buildings housing local elected officials, including the parking areas. Violating the law would be a Class 1 misdemeanor, with exceptions for law enforcement officers, armed forces members and security personnel. 

The bill passed the Senate in a 21-14 vote on April 3. It's scheduled to face its first House committee vote on April 17.

"The consequences of leaving a firearm unattended in a public space could be very serious," House Speaker Julie McCluskie, a Democrat, said in a statement. "This should not have happened and cannot happen again, and this is why our caucus is pursuing legislation to prohibit carrying firearms in the Capitol."

Members of the public already aren't allowed to bring weapons into the Capitol. Entrances to the Statehouse have been fitted with security and metal detectors since 2007, when state troopers fatally shot a man calling himself "the emperor" who tried to enter then-Governor Bill Ritter's office with a handgun and a hunting knife, vowing to take over the state government.

But legislators are permitted to carry firearms in the building owing to a state law that designates the Capitol as their place of business. Because of this, the Colorado State Patrol did not find Wilson, nor other legislators previously caught mishandling firearms, to have violated any laws.

"After completing an investigation into the incident, it was determined by Capitol troopers that no state statutes were violated," Trooper Gabriel Moltrer says. "There are no criminal charges pending as a result of this incident."

Some legislators have been arrested for gun crimes outside of the building, as when then-Representative Lori Saine took a loaded handgun through airport security in 2017 because she forgot it was in her purse, or when Representative Mike Lynch was arrested for drunk driving and possessing a firearm while intoxicated in 2022.

But the Statehouse has served as a safe space for gun-toting mixed results. Here are some of the slip-ups that state representatives have made while packing heat at the Colorado Capitol:

Left Stolen Guns in (Possibly Unlocked) Truck

Days before he was sworn into office, Republican Representative Ron Weinberg left his truck parked outside of the Capitol with two pistols inside. When he returned to his vehicle after leaving it overnight, the guns had been stolen, along with other personal items.

The guns were unloaded, but one magazine was also left inside the truck, Weinberg said after the incident in January 2023. He said it was unclear whether he'd left the truck unlocked or the thieves broke in, but there was no damage to the exterior of the vehicle.

Weinberg was reportedly distressed over the theft, fearing his guns would be used to commit crimes: “I just couldn’t imagine ever hearing that something that belongs to me could do ill will to anybody," he told the Denver Post. "It hurts me sincerely.”

In addition to banning guns in the Capitol, the legislature is currently considering a bill to prohibit knowingly leaving a handgun unattended in a vehicle without storing it in a locked container.

Dropped Gun on Floor While Running to Vote

In March 2022, while Republican Representative Richard Holtorf was hurrying to the House floor to cast a vote, a gun accidentally fell out of his pants and onto the floor of the public lobby in front of several witnesses. The gun did not go off, and no one was injured.

While Holtorf simply scooped up the gun and ran off, the incident left witnesses startled, calling it "reckless and scary," CPR reported at the time.

No charges were brought against Holtorf, but the blunder may have inspired today's debate on whether firearms should be allowed in the Capitol. After it happened, then-House Speaker Alec Garnett said his office was evaluating existing laws and rules to determine "what options might exist that would prevent this from happening again.

"Irresponsible behavior could have dire consequences," Garnett noted. "This incident was unacceptable and created a dangerous situation for lawmakers, staff and the public visiting the Capitol."

Allegedly Threatened Colleagues Into Wearing Bulletproof Vests

Years prior, Garnett and Representative Matt Gray spent weeks wearing bulletproof vests to the Capitol out of fear of violence from fellow Democratic representative Steve Lebsock, the men revealed on the House floor in March 2018.

Lebsock had been accused of sexual harassment, and Garnett and Gray had publicly supported one of the victims and called for Lebsock's expulsion. In response, Garnett claimed Lebsock "threatened to ‘take me down,’" he told the Denver Post at the time.

“I’m sick of wearing my bulletproof vest. I’m sick of doing it,” Garnett said in an emotional testimony on the House floor. "I am in the chamber of the House of Representatives, and I’m wearing a bulletproof vest because I fear retaliation for telling the truth and standing up for victims of sexual harassment."

Lebsock denied threatening Garnett and suggested that any firearms would only be used in Garnett's defense, saying he would "protect" his colleagues "if someone walked in here." Lawmakers later expelled Lebsock in a 52-9 vote.

Left Loaded Gun Unattended in Committee Room

While clearing a committee room after a debate on concealed handgun permits in February 2014, a legislator found a loaded gun sitting in a canvas bag under a table. It was later discovered that the gun belonged to Republican Representative Jared Wright, who forgot the bag when he left the public meeting.

Wright, a former police officer, said he often carried the weapon in the Capitol, NBC News reported.

"I feel it's my duty to be a first responder wherever I am at," Wright said at the time. "That's why I carry it."

After the incident came to light, Wright reportedly agreed to stop bringing firearms into the building and to "be more careful" following a conversation with then-Governor John Hickenlooper and the State Patrol. No charges were filed in the case, but it ended up being Wright's first and only term in the legislature.

Waved Unloaded Gun Around Committee Hearing

Democratic Representative Ken Gordon inspired controversy in February 2000 when he waved an unloaded pistol in front of a committee voting on one of his gun control bills, according to an archived Denver Post article from the time.

The stunt was intended to demonstrate how easy it was to buy a gun, and Gordon claimed he had permission from the state patrol and the committee chair in advance. But the incident was still shocking enough that it inspired some pro-gun Republicans to introduce a resolution attempting to require permission from the House speaker or Senate president for legislators to bring firearms inside the Capitol, the Post reported.

"I think they're interfering with my Second Amendment rights," the gun control advocate mockingly responded.

At the time, the fact that legislators carried guns inside the Capitol was considered a secret, with Gordon telling the Post it was only "widely believed" that his colleagues might be bearing arms at their desks.

Oh, how times have changed. 
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