Yampa Valley police chiefs weigh in on gun control
April 11, 2013
Craig — With much of the country engulfed in a passionate debate about gun control, the majority of the focus in Colorado has been on the county sheriffs who have criticized two pieces of state legislation as being unenforceable.
On Thursday, the Yampa Valley's police chiefs jumped into the conversation and joined their law enforcement counterparts at the county level in questioning the enforceability of Colorado's newest gun control laws, including House Bill 13-1224, which prohibits large-capacity magazines of 15 or more rounds, and HB13-1229, which requires criminal background checks for private gun sales.
But Craig Police Chief Walt Vanatta said there is a clear distinction between questioning the enforceability of a law and deciding whether to enforce it.
"I'm not going to say we're not going to enforce the law because I am not in a position to determine whether these laws are constitutional or not; that's why we have courts," Vanatta said. "However, am I going to actively pursue people who may be in violation of these laws? Probably not. We don't have the resources or the time."
Like Vanatta, Steamboat Springs Police Chief Joel Rae said he doesn't doubt the new laws were written with the intention of making Colorado communities safer in the wake of the Aurora theater and Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings.
But Rae also questioned the ability to enforce the new gun laws.
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"Speaking strictly from an enforcement perspective, it will be impossible to be in a position to know about every illegal sale of every firearm or magazine or to know whenever a firearm changes hands that the purchaser went through a National Instant Criminal Background Check — just as it is impossible to know of every illegal drug sale," Rae wrote in an email. "There will also be times when enforcement of the new gun bills may not be so difficult."
Among Vanatta's frustrations with the new laws is their ambiguity.
For example, HB13-1224 allows people to legally own large-capacity magazines as long as they were purchased before the law takes effect July 1. In addition, Colorado's prohibition of large-capacity magazines addresses only in-state sales and transfers. There is no language that would prevent a Colorado resident from traveling across state lines to legally purchase a large-capacity magazine in another state, Vanatta said.
"That's what I mean by unenforceable," Vanatta said. "It would be impossible to prove when or where a person bought a high-capacity magazine because they aren't stamped."
Vanatta blames the ambiguous nature of the new laws on the politicians who wrote them.
"This is 'feel good' legislation motivated by the emotion created by the victims of shootings in this country, but they were written by legislators passing legislation they don't even understand," Vanatta said, citing a recent gaffe by U.S. Rep. Diana DeGette, D-Colo., who thought magazines could not be reloaded.
DeGette, who has served Colorado in Congress since the mid-1990s, is touted as a gun control leader and has carried federal legislation on at least three occasions to ban large-capacity magazines.
Former Steamboat Springs Police Chief JD Hays agreed with Vanatta's observation, criticizing state lawmakers for carrying and passing gun control legislation without seeking the input of law enforcement officials to ensure the new laws could be enforced.
But for Hays, the ongoing debate about large-capacity magazines is a nonissue.
"Anyone who knows anything about guns can do just as much damage with a 10-round magazine as a 30-round magazine," Hays said. "I can't remember (which incident), but it was reported after Aurora or Sandy Hook that the gunman fired 154 rounds in five minutes, and they both had semiautomatic rifles.
"They could have gotten off that many rounds with a handgun, and someone very proficient could have done so with a revolver."
Although Hays doesn't disagree with the idea of requiring criminal background checks for private gun transfers, he said that legislation also fell short of its goals because it provides no mechanism for private citizens to conduct those background checks.
Perhaps state lawmakers assumed gun shops would have stepped up to provide that service, but legislators also failed to protect businesses from liability, Hays said.
"Since the law passed, many gun store owners have said they won't conduct criminal background checks for private sales because they've been advised by their insurance company or their attorney not to get involved," Vanatta said.
"There's got to be some mechanism there to protect businesses from liability because there's no way for them to know if the gun involved in the transaction is a stolen firearm or not," Hays added. "It would have been easy if the legislation also contained language requiring the (Colorado Bureau of Investigation) to also run a background check on the gun."
Despite the enforcement issues with the new laws, Vanatta said he doesn't view either as unconstitutional, citing the impracticality of large-capacity magazines for hunting and everyday life.
"If you subscribe to the philosophy that high-capacity magazines are responsible for all of the gun violence in this country, then we should probably take everyone's cars away from them, too," Vanatta said. "The rationale doesn't fit because it's not the car that causes the crash, it's the operator. The same is true for guns."
Joe Moylan can be reached at 970-875-1794 or jmoylan@CraigDailyPress.com.