After lengthy filibuster, Colorado Democrats advance gun, substance-use bills

More than 16 hours after they entered the House chamber, Colorado lawmakers advanced two controversial bills regulating guns and drug use in the early morning hours Friday, ending a marathon session of often emotional debate about how to best save lives amid dueling public health crises.

House Republicans had pledged to fight the Democrat-backed bills, one of which would enact a minimum three-day waiting period for buying a gun, and the other would allow local governments to open safe-use drug sites. They made good on those threats Thursday: Debate on the gun measure began at 1:30 p.m. and ended at 2:30 the next morning. Republicans rejected a deal to end debate in exchange for a modest amendment as midnight approached, and Democrats shot down more than a dozen Republican attempts to change the gun bill.

Ultimately, the waiting-period bill passed with the slight change that Republicans had rejected hours before, which will delay when the bill — should it be signed into law — becomes effective. The safe-use site bill passed four hours after, at 6:30 a.m., also with modest changes.

The debate fell on the midpoint of the 120-day session, and it hit upon two core issues for Republicans and Democrats alike. One is guns: Democrats, who hold firm majorities in both House and Senate, unveiled a suite of four firearm reform bills in late February. All four advanced through committee this week after lengthy hearings, and Democrats are now seeking to move them swiftly through the Capitol.

The other three gun bills — to expand the state’s red-flag law; institute age limits on gun purchases; and to make it easier to sue gun manufacturers and sellers — will all be heard before the full Senate on Friday. Republicans and their allies have vowed to filibuster and, acknowledging that the bills are still likely to pass, file lawsuits to block their implementation.

The second issue — whether to clear the way for safe-use sites to open in willing municipalities — harkens back to last year’s bruising fight over tightened criminal penalties and expanded harm-reduction services for fentanyl users and dealers. The debate early Friday morning saw Democrats, like sponsor Rep. Elisabeth Epps, cast the sites as a vital resource to keep drug users alive until they were ready to seek treatment. Republicans, meanwhile, derided the proposal (which would not open any sites itself) as enabling of illegal activity and an overreach into rural Colorado.

Thursday’s filibuster was reminiscent of last year’s 24-hour standoff over the Reproductive Health Equity Act, which enshrined and protected abortion access in state law. Thursday’s debate stretched so long that Democratic Majority Leader Monica Duran announced Friday morning that the House would break for the day but return Saturday, an atypical burst of weekend work for lawmakers that often depart the Capitol for their homes across Colorado every Friday.

That’s a particular wrinkle for Republicans: The state party’s central committee, which includes lawmakers who will now be compelled to return to the House, is set to meet Saturday and vote for their next party chair.

A Democratic House spokesman said Friday morning that the move wasn’t punitive and that the House had work it needed to get done. Democratic Rep. Shannon Bird echoed that sentiment and said that exhausted lawmakers couldn’t work Friday and needed to make up time over the weekend.

Going into the Thursday afternoon filibuster session, aides stocked up desks with snacks. Republican lawmakers stacked piles of research, amendments and filibuster material against a wall, and a spokesman said some members had brought a change of clothes.

The gun bill — cast by supporters as an effort to curtail suicides by giving those in crisis a “cooling-off period” — ate up most of the day and evening. Representatives from both parties described personal experience with suicide. Rep. Stephanie Vigil, a Colorado Springs Democrat, said she had attempted to kill herself and that the only reason she hadn’t is because she’d chosen a less-lethal means and was able to stop. While Republicans had said the bill wouldn’t solve the problem, Vigil countered that saying one life would be enough.

For Republicans, the filibuster was a statement — to both those inside and outside the Capitol building — of their commitment to fight what they see as infringements on the Second Amendment. Minority Leader Mike Lynch said Democrats aren’t focusing on the real issue — mental health — and were instead devoting weeks of attention to the “bright, shiny” policy of gun reform.

Their speeches, which often stretched for an hour at a time, ranged from criticisms of the bill’s constitutionality and its impact on self-defense to the Ronald Reagan assassination attempt and the Rwandan genocide. Rep. Ken DeGraaf, a Colorado Springs Republican warned that the “distinction between a citizen and a slave is one is armed and one is not,” and his colleagues recounted stories of women who’d used guns to defend themselves from would-be attackers.

As Republicans brought a spree of amendments that would allow domestic violence or sexual assault victims to circumvent the three-day waiting period, Penrose Republican Rep. Stephanie Luck defended the need for the lengthy debate.

“It’s not time-wasting,” she said. “This is our job. We have to figure out: Is this policy workable?”

Luck had been one of the first Republicans to speak earlier that day, nearly eight hours before, when she expressed support for the gun bill’s sponsor, Rep. Judy Amabile.

The Boulder Democrat had described how her son had been in an acute mental health crisis and attempted to buy a gun. Only Amabile’s intervention and the compassion of the gun shop owner had stopped the sale. While Republicans had said that guns are only one way for a person to die by suicide, Amablie said her son was still alive because he had used less lethal means in previous attempts.

According to state data, 740 of the 1,370 suicides in Colorado in 2021 involved firearms.

“I don’t expect any of you to care whether my son lives or dies,” Amabile told her colleagues. “That’s not your job. But I do think it’s our job here in the legislature to do everything we can to try to prevent preventable suicides.”

In response, Luck told her that though she disagreed with Amabile on this policy, she cared about her colleague’s son.

Epps, the sponsor of the safe-use site bill with fellow Democratic Rep. Jenny Willford, cast her proposal in a similar preventative light: as a tool to save lives amid a public health crisis. The bill, if passed, would let local governments to decide whether to open the sites, which allow users to consume illicit substances under supervision in facilities that typically feature information about various treatment and support services.

Republicans, meanwhile, argued that the sites will only encourage drug use while inviting crime into the neighborhoods in which a facility would open. Akron Republican Rep. Richard Holtorf likened those with substance use disorders to chemical slaves, which prompted Willford to read the dictionary definition of “slave” and ask for less divisive language.

Holtorf said demand for drugs will go up should any sites open and that rural Colorado wasn’t ready or interested in them. Allowing people to safely use drugs, he said, would act as a barrier to them receiving treatment.

“I understand the bill sponsors think this is a solution to this problem, or a partial solution to a problem,” he said. “But how do you get the people that entrapped in this horrible dependency to break the shackles and free themselves from this bondage?”

Supporters have long pushed back on the suggestion that the facilities enable drug use, and research from New York City shows that users would’ve used their drugs elsewhere — most of them in public — had centers there not been available.

Epps said that a drug user can’t enter treatment if they overdose alone.

“You cannot go to rehab if you’re not alive,” she said. “You cannot seek treatment if you’re not alive. You cannot get help, or heal, or get well, or mend relationships, or make amends, or be forgiven, if you’re not alive.”

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