Littwin: Shooting blanks

Mike Littwin

A stunning thing happened Monday at the Senate committee hearing to repeal background checks for private gun sales.

Nothing happened. The hearing couldn’t have been less electric if they had scheduled it in MetLife Stadium. It was the biggest upset since, well, you know.

This was supposed to be Day One of the assault on John Hickenlooper and the Democrats for the modest gun legislation they passed last year. It was supposed to be the first chance to ride the momentum from Recall Summer that would — if successful — carry the Republicans all the way to Replace November.

I wouldn’t say the day was an embarrassment for the Republicans — because, as Peyton Manning cautioned us, that would be an insult — but as big-day disappointments go, this one had everything but someone hiking the ball into the end zone.

The game plan failed. There was no midstream change of strategy. The big guns didn’t show.

Sound familiar?

Last year, when Democrats were introducing their gun bills, everyone knew they had the votes. They controlled both houses and the governor’s office. They had the emotions still raw from Sandy Hook and Aurora.

What Republicans had was a plan. They had organized chaos. They had hundreds of supporters filling the Capitol to overflowing. They had people all day circling the place in their cars, honking their horns. Revolution was in the air.

All Democrats could figure to do was cram all the committee hearings into a single day and try to make it all go away. We know how well that worked.

The Democrats got most of their bills passed, but people who came to testify were turned away. And the recalls ended up being not just about guns but also about people not being heard.

This time, Democrats, who still have the votes, promised everyone would get a chance to be heard. The problem for the gunnies — Jon Caldara’s word — is that hardly anyone showed up. The room was full — with a couple hundred people on hand. But there were nearly twice as many people testifying to keep the background checks as there were testifying to repeal them.

There were no rallies. There were no horns or other instruments. Maybe — and this is what has to worry Republicans, particularly those running for, say, governor — the issue has peaked. Maybe the fact that, according to the polls, 80-some percent of Coloradans favor background checks played a role. Maybe that was all so 2013.

Or, in the nightmare scenario, the problem could be that the background checks are actually working.

In a strange coincidence of time and place, the bill’s sponsor was George Rivera, who won his recall election over Angela Giron. And one of the two Republicans on the five-person committee was Bernie Herpin, who won his recall election over then-Senate President John Morse. If it was a big day for the pair, though, it wasn’t necessarily a good day.

Rivera looked every bit the rookie — stumbling in his defense of the repeal bill and not especially prepared to serve up softball questions to his allies. He said voters had sent him to the Senate to fight against the gun bills. But it was Sen. Irene Aguilar, one of the Democrats on the committee, who came out fighting, asking Rivera tough questions.

Rivera said he favored background checks — just not these background checks. And why not? Because, he said, they were vague and onerous. Why vague? Well, let’s just say he was pretty vague about the answer. If criminals were turned down by private-sales background checks, he said, that doesn’t mean they wouldn’t just turn around and get guns elsewhere. But why wouldn’t that apply to all background checks? He couldn’t say.

And Bernie Herpin, in questioning CBI Director Ron Sloan about background checks, said he was sure that dangerous criminals were unlikely to risk trying to buy guns when faced with background checks.

Sloan said he was “constantly amazed” by the people who try to buy guns and that “188 fugitives from justice” were stopped by background checks in 2013.

Since July, 104 would-be gun buyers have been stopped because of the private-sale background checks, including one for homicide and 16 for assault. If you listened to the testimony from Republicans last year, you knew that wasn’t supposed to happen. These would be deals between friends, people who knew each other. Criminals would be a rarity.

And yet, according to Sloan’s numbers, virtually the same percentage of people — just fewer than 2 percent — were stopped from buying guns with these checks as were stopped by gun-store and gun-show checks.

If the private-sales law hadn’t been in effect, 104 people who shouldn’t have guns would have had them. And that’s the number who were caught knowing there was some risk. What if there had been no risk?

Democrats made that point repeatedly. This year, the Democrats were on the offensive. In a pre-hearing news conference, Rep. Rhonda Fields put it this way: Those who want to repeal the law “want to make it easier for felons and other dangerous people to buy guns.”

Aguilar made a similar point, asking Rivera, “Do you think it’s a good policy to keep guns out of the hands of criminals?”

The law, it seems, wasn’t about relatives loaning guns to relatives. It was about a true loophole in background checks.

The repeal bill, sent to the fabled kill committee, was voted down, 3-2, as expected. There will be other hearings, of course. And some will be on the controversial limit on the size of ammunition magazines, which may make for a more dramatic day.

But this was Day One, a day when everyone would be watching. What they saw, for one hearing at least, was the anti-gun-laws momentum slowing down. And what they heard was about the 104 would-be gun buyers who were stopped.

Mike Littwin runs Sundays in The Aspen Times. A former columnist for the Rocky Mountain News and Denver Post, he currently writes for