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Congressional Race In Colorado Heats Up As National Gun Groups Spend Big

Leigh Paterson
Gun issues have come up at almost all of Democrat Jason Crow's campaign events.

As election day approaches, national gun violence prevention groups are spending big on the competitive race in Colorado's 6th Congressional District, and on other tight races across the country, in a push to make gun control a winning issue this year.

This week, two pro-gun control political action committees announced millions in planned spending on ad campaigns. On Tuesday Everytown for Gun Safety Action Fund, the advocacy arm of the organization started by former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, announced that it will spend $5 million on ads in 15 house races.

Earlier this week Giffords PAC, the political arm of the gun safety group founded by former Congresswoman Gabby Giffords, launched a $1.5 million ad campaign focused on Colorado's 6th District, backing Democrat Jason Crow.

Giffords says that, so far, it has also funded ad campaigns in Virginia's 10th District and Minnesota's 2nd District, but that it has spent the most money on the Colorado campaign.

It can be hard to predict how people will react to messaging around gun issues. For example, as part of Giffords new campaign in Colorado, it launched an attack ad, showing a mom and daughter, named Emily, texting back and forth. The daughter's school is on lockdown because there is someone with a gun.

Credit Giffords PAC / Screenshot KUNC
Screenshot KUNC
In an attack ad from Giffords PAC, a mom and daughter text back and forth. The ad was changed following criticism that it too closely resembled a real event.

Controversy followed, as some said the text exchange in the ad too closely mirrored a real school shooting that happened in Colorado in 2006. The sole victim was 16-year-old Emily Keyes.

Rep. Mike Coffman, the five-term Republican incumbent who represents the district, called on Giffords to pull the ad.

9News addressed it in its broadcast, before the ad itself went out on the stations own airwaves.

"Emily's family wants that political attack ad off our air. I don't have the power to make that happen, but I am able to talk to you about it here," said host Kyle Clark.

In a written statement, Emily Keyes' parents described their reaction:

"Our initial response was profound disappointment. (...) The Giffords organization reached out to us directly to offer both their regret and apologies. They assured us that the similarities were coincidental and they would be altering the advertisement and reposting a new version on social media and other internet sites. We believe that any connection to the tragedy our family experienced was unintentional."

Ultimately, the Giffords organization did make changes to the ad.

This election season, there are a lot of gun-related ads, especially ads pushing gun control. According to a Wall Street Journal analysis of Kantar Media/CMAG data, this year ads promoting stricter gun regulations have aired 102,636 times across the country, compared to 4,491 in 2014.

Giffords, who was shot in the head in 2011 and survived is, along with her husband, Capt. Mark Kelly, part of an effort to get pro-gun control candidates elected in November.

Credit Leigh Paterson / KUNC
Capt. Mark Kelly speaks at a rally for Democrat Jason Crow in Aurora. This stop was part of a six-state tour put on by a national gun violence prevention group called Giffords PAC in support of candidates who are Democrats and veterans.

"We look for candidates that might not definitely win. We want to be helpful. We want to be a part of getting them across the finish line," Kelly said at a recent campaign stop at a Veterans of Foreign Wars post in Aurora.

They were are on a cross-country trip stumping for seven House candidates in six states, all Democrats and all veterans, including Crow. The area is home to the 2012 Aurora theatre shooting. The Columbine High School shooting happened nearby.

"My name is Jason Crow and I've come here to win this race and to move forward on gun violence prevention in this country," Crow said, at the Aurora rally, as Giffords, Kelly and others sat on stage with him.

Credit Leigh Paterson / KUNC
Moms Demand Action, a group supporting gun control legislation, at a Giffords PAC rally in Aurora.

Crow is not a single-issue candidate, but guns have come up at almost every one of his campaign events. He's done a TV ad and sent out mailers , including one about taking on the NRA. Crow's argument is basically that his life experience, growing up hunting and then serving in the military, gives him credibility.

"Folks, there's a good reason why I didn't deer hunt with an AR-15. And why I didn't take my deer hunting rifle with me to Iraq and Afghanistan. They're different weapons, designed to do different things, and I know that better than anybody," Crow said during his stump speech.

Crow describes his philosophy on guns like this:

"I respect the Second Amendment (…) but we're at the point where we have a severe crisis where over 30,000 Americans are being killed by gun violence. So I want common sense solutions like universal background checks, magazine limitations, closing loopholes, that most Americans can get behind," Crow said.

Colorado's 6th District is diverse and growing. Former President Barack Obama won the district in 2012, as did Hillary Clinton in 2016. But Rep. Mike Coffman has been fending off Democratic challengers for years.

Credit Leigh Paterson / KUNC
Rep. Mike Coffman, Republican, poses to have his photo taken at a recent event with Korean business leaders at a hotel complex in Englewood.

At a recent event for the Korean American Hotel Association in Englewood, Coffman was on stage, answering questions about President Trump and North Korea, and having his photo taken with attendees. Earlier that morning, Coffman said he was at a local mosque for Friday prayers.

Like Crow, Coffman is also a veteran, and on guns, his philosophy doesn't sound so different than his challenger's.

"I respect the Second Amendment. I don't believe it's just about hunting," Coffman said. "I believe it's about self-protection, but I believe in responsible gun ownership. And I believe that there needs to be, I think, rational regulations that are respectful of the Second Amendment and due process rights to eliminate gun violence."

"But I get that's it's going to be an issue in this campaign more because of my opponent than anything else."
- Rep. Mike Coffman

But Coffman and Crow emphasize different methods of dealing with the issue.

In May, Coffman introduced a bill that would help states fund so-called "red flag laws" which allow law enforcement to temporarily take guns away from someone in crisis. Coffman also talks a lot about a program called Safe2Tell, that helps students and others report someone who could be a threat.

Coffman has an A rating from the NRA and has received $5,500 in campaign contributions from the group this election cycle. He also released a gun-related attack ad this week. But, generally, Coffman says he’s never been particularly focused on guns. 

"But I get that's it's going to be an issue in this campaign more because of my opponent than anything else," he said.

When asked what he thinks about the Giffords organization getting involved in his district, Coffman said it was about more than guns.

"First of all, they believe in the issue. I have differences with them. But they passionately believe in gun control. They also see an opportunity to flip the House. So they're gun control advocates but they're also staunch progressives," Coffman said.

A recent New York Times poll showed Crow in the lead, and 63 percent of voters polled indicated that they would support a federal ban on the sale of assault-style guns and high-capacity magazines. 

But it is just one poll. Plus, gun control hasn’t always been a winning issue in Colorado. After the Aurora Theatre shooting, state lawmakers passed a package of gun control laws. In response, two Democratic senators were voted out of office in a recall election, the first in Colorado's history. Nationally, the episode became a symbolfor the heated debate over gun safety. 

But Capt. Mark Kelly believes that gun control will be a winning issue in this year's midterm elections because of recent high-profile mass shooting incidents.

"Just look at what's happened in the last 18 months: Pulse nightclub shooting, followed by a year later, the shooting in Las Vegas," he said. "A month or six weeks after that, the shooting in Sutherland Springs at the church. And then Parkland."

As KUNC's Senior Editor and Reporter, my job is to find out what’s important to northern Colorado residents and why. I seek to create a deeper sense of urgency and understanding around these issues through in-depth, character driven daily reporting and series work.
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