Littwin: Judge Krieger mocks the great gun-law sound and fury
Marcia Krieger has made a lot of people look foolish. The list, in fact, is astonishingly long. Panicked sheriffs. Fevered recallers. “Freedom”-invoking candidates. A flustered governor. I could go on.
Krieger is a gun-owning, U.S. District Court judge who was appointed by George W. Bush. In upholding the modest gun laws passed by the Legislature last year, she made the obvious point, in a 50-page ruling, that nothing much had happened.
To sum up: The laws weren’t unconstitutional. No one was unduly burdened. The Legislature had looked carefully before acting.
On expanding background checks, she wrote, “It does not prevent a person otherwise permitted to obtain a firearm from acquiring one, nor subject that person to any greater burdens than he or she would face if acquiring the weapon commercially. Nothing in the Second Amendment can be read to suggest that a permissible burden on commercial sales of firearms cannot similarly be extended to apply to those acquiring firearms by loan.”
On limiting the size of magazines to 15 rounds: “Of the many law enforcement officials called to testify, none were able to identify a single instance in which they were involved where a single civilian fired more than 15 shots in self defense.”
But, of course, the uproar wasn’t really about these particular gun-control laws. Any laws would have done. Weld County Sheriff John Cooke, who has said he won’t enforce the laws, points out that there have been no arrests since they’ve been in place. And so …
Am I missing something?
Here’s what’s hard to miss: We are the state of Columbine and Aurora. And the state Legislature, in response to those twin facts, looked for modest ways to minimize the chances of a third name further staining our state’s reputation. They didn’t rob us of our freedoms. They didn’t grab anyone’s guns. They looked for constitutional means to limit the carnage.
So here’s what they did:
They passed a law expanding background checks so that people who shouldn’t have guns don’t get them. It’s hardly foolproof. But when Colorado Bureau of Investigation Director Ron Sloan was questioned in a Senate hearing in February, he said that 104 would-be gun buyers had been stopped because of the private-sale background checks. One was stopped on suspicion of homicide, 16 on assault.
And they passed a law limiting the size of magazines. It is difficult to see the issue here. The law was passed in the hope that the carnage in a mass shooting would be limited when a shooter was forced to reload. Limits are legal. You can’t have a bazooka. And as Krieger noted, law enforcement officers usually get by with magazines of 15 rounds or fewer.
In mass shootings, the problem is almost always the intersection of disturbed young men and access to powerful weapons. The problem is clear. The solution is not. Most mentally ill people are not violent, and even those who might be violent aren’t likely to murder anyone.
The Santa Barbara murderer had obvious issues that were put before psychiatrists and police officers, and still he was able to buy guns legally. But I wonder what Cooke would say if the Legislature passed a law saying those who might be dangerous can’t have guns. There’s a law that would be unconstitutional.
If Krieger’s ruling made a lot of people look foolish, none looked as foolish as John Hickenlooper, who signed the bills into law. The gun story was very much last year’s story. When Republicans brought it up at the Legislature this year, hoping to embarrass Democrats in the post-recall era, the story went nowhere. Most people had moved on. One side had gotten a few modest laws passed. The other side had gotten a few senators recalled. And that seemed like enough.
And then Hickenlooper found it necessary to semi-apologize to a group of sheriffs and say that he might have looked at the matter differently if only he’d known it would be so controversial. No one believed him. And hardly anyone could believe — for that matter — that Hickenlooper wouldn’t have realized, in the smartphone age, that someone was recording the whole thing.
Nearly as foolish-looking, though, are those Republicans who have unleashed Dudley Brown, head of the radical Rocky Mountain Gun Owners, who has become a political force. He helped spearhead the recalls. And now, he has successfully backed two state Senate candidates in Republican primaries. And according to the conventional wisdom, Brown’s two extreme candidates may well cost the Republicans their chance to retake the state Senate.
The story doesn’t end here. The ruling will be be appealed, of course. The laws will be an issue in the governor’s race.
In her ruling, Krieger took pains to say repeatedly that she would not judge the merits of the laws. Her role, she said, was only to judge their constitutionality. But if you read her 50-page ruling, you’ll see something else, too: She inadvertently made the case that the making of these laws, whether or not they prove effective, was entirely reasonable. It’s too bad you can’t say the same about the reaction to them.
Mike Littwin runs Sundays in The Aspen Times. A former columnist for the Rocky Mountain News and Denver Post, he currently writes for ColoradoIndependent.com.
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