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Theater Shootings Come into Play in Colorado Campaigns

Kirk Siegler

The deadly movie theater shootings in Aurora are starting to play out in at least two tight congressional racesin the state.

The shootings in July left 12 people dead and injured 58 more, and in the weeks since, the two Democratic candidates running in districts in and around the city have called for stricter gun laws.  But Republicans have accused them of trying to politicize the tragedy. 

A Call for Tighter Gun Laws

On a recent Saturday, Joe Miklosi works the crowd at a local Pipefitters Union picnic, shaking hands, letting potential supporters know that the Democratic-friendly union has endorsed him in his bid against Republican Congressman Mike Coffman.

The newly redrawn Sixth Congressional district now encompasses all of Aurora, including the movie theater where the Batman shootings took place. 

The underdog Miklosi, a former state legislator, hasn’t shied away from talking about guns out on the stump.

“My mom owns a handgun and I want her to be able to protect herself,” he says. “But do we really need hundred round magazine clips?  It’s like driving a tank down Colfax Ave. or street in Colorado.”

Miklosi says he questions why this is necessary and would also like to see a crack down on on-line ammo sales, such as how suspect James Holmes is thought to have acquired part of his arsenal.

‘Too Soon’

Republican groups say it’s too soon to talk about gun control when victims are still grieving.

“I think it’s really telling that President Obama, Governor Hickenlooper and a whole handful of generally liberal politicians are not saying there’s a new need for gun-control legislation,” says Tyler Houlton, president of Compass Colorado.

The conservative advocacy group put out a robo-call recently targeting independent voters in Colorado’s 7th Congressional district, where Democratic Congressman Ed Perlmutter is in a tight race to save his seat.

On the call, a woman’s voice is heard, accusing Perlmutter of politicizing the tragedy: “Perlmutter exploited the Aurora shooting to further his gun-control agenda, just 48 hours after the tragedy.”

In a statement, Perlmutter’s campaign counters that the only group trying to exploit the tragedy for political gain is Compass Colorado.

Part of the 7th district touches Aurora, and Perlmutter did tell CBS’s Face the Nation after the shootings that Congress can no longer avoid a debate on gun control.

During a brief interview, Perlmutter said:

You know, should we reinstate the assault weapons ban, I think we should, and I think that’s where it starts.  We ought to be taking a look at how this guy was able to accumulate so much ammunition.

Community Dialogue

After the Columbine shootings, even some conservatives like former Congressman Tom Tancredo supported tightening some gun laws.  But the federal assault weapons ban Perlmutter spoke of has been expired since 2004.

Dave Perry, editor of the Aurora Sentinel newspaper, says the public has since started backing away from the idea that new laws can prevent future tragedies. 

“It could well be that there really is no legislation that we can write that’s going to protect people from guns or these kind of people who get a hold of them,” Perry says. “But it’s pathetic that we would allow people to say ‘we don’t even want to have this discussion right now.’”

Perry’s paper, and specifically its editorial page, has started pushing Republican Mike Coffman on the issue.

Coffman’s campaign declined repeated requests for an interview, but the Congressman has said the full investigation into the shooting needs to take its course before potential solutions can be debated. 

Walking a Fine Line

In his tenure in Congress though, Coffman has been a firm opponent of new gun control laws.

Dave Perry thinks that might play against him in the weeks to come.

“Out here, where it’s people who were affected by a lack of gun legislation that allowed this guy to get the guns and do what he did, he has to walk a really tight line,” Perry says.

But the two Democrats in the races may also be walking a tight line calling for more gun-control. 

Back at the Pipefitter’s picnic, a Democratic-friendly venue, Paula Trujillo has just shaken hands with Joe Miklosi.  She’s puzzled why it’s so easy for people like James Holmes to go online and buy a bullet proof vest and no one notices. 

But when it comes to gun ownership generally, Trujillo’s views are more black and white.

“Like I say, we want our gun in our house, just in case,” she says. “And we don’t want the government taking our guns.”

Trujillo says she’s not sure more dialogue about gun-control would change people’s minds, including hers.

Indeed, a poll by the Pew Research Center after the Aurora tragedy found Americans’ views mostly unchanged regarding gun ownership.  

Kirk Siegler reports for NPR, based out of NPR West in California.
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