Of the many Democrats running for president, only one has won tougher gun laws in the aftermath of a mass shooting in his state. So on Sunday — after massacres not quite 13 hours apart in El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio — John Hickenlooper’s mind drifted to 2012.
He was Colorado’s governor that year, when 12 were killed and 70 injured at a movie theater in Aurora. The gunman used several legally-obtained weapons, including a semiautomatic rifle with a 100-round barrel magazine. A few months later, just as Hickenlooper was wrestling with what kind of gun control could pass his state legislature, 26 were killed at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut.
“That was the same kind of one-two whammy,” Hickenlooper said Monday in a telephone interview with BuzzFeed News. “It was similar. It wasn’t quite as intense as this weekend was.”
The mass shootings of 2012, which followed one in 2011 that nearly killed then-Arizona congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, contributed to a call for gun control that has not yet been answered at the federal level. But in March of 2013, Hickenlooper, backed by his fellow Democrats, signed into state law one measure requiring universal background checks for gun sales and private transfers and another outlawing magazines with more than 15 rounds of ammunition.
The killings in El Paso and Dayton elevated the issue in the presidential race. Hickenlooper and his admirers acknowledged Monday that the tragedy also could elevate Hickenlooper — a low-polling contender in danger of being cut from the next round of debates — as a problem-solver for a national epidemic. (Another long shot Democrat, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, has signed several bills aimed at restricting the flow of guns in that state.)
“Crises always bring about a window of opportunity” to sell gun control, former Ohio governor John Kasich, a Republican who is friendly with Hickenlooper and who advocated with little success for stricter gun laws in his state before leaving office, told BuzzFeed News on Monday. “With John, they had the Aurora shooting.”
“Now with the latest killings — now that we’re heartbroken,” Kasich added, “there could be change.”
The move toward tougher laws started slowly in Colorado after the Aurora shooting. Hickenlooper’s thoughts on how far potential legislation should go often were a “mystery” — attributable in part to his preference not to micromanage lawmakers, according to Colorado Public Radio. (“Exactly,” Hickenlooper recalled Monday when asked about these observations of his governing style.)
In a guest column last month for CNN, Hickenlooper wrote that he began taking a more active role after an early 2013 conversation with his son, then 11: "Daddy, what do you do all day at work that's so hard? Make decisions?"
The talk prompted Hickenlooper to seek data on how effective Colorado’s limited background checks had been to that point. He learned that checks had prevented gun sales to more than 3,000 people arrested for or convicted of serious crimes — including 38 homicides.
“I’ll remember these statistics to my grave,” Hickenlooper said Monday.
The numbers helped sell change to Democrats worried about their more-conservative constituents. But not a single Republican in the legislature backed the measures Hickenlooper signed.
“I got pissed off,” Hickenlooper said. “Every Republican I knew … had no problem with background checks. What pissed me off was the Republicans wouldn’t compromise.”
Greg Brophy, then a state senator, was one of those Republicans.
“The laws were horrible laws,” he told BuzzFeed News by telephone Monday. “They weren’t going to make us safer. There was no real effort to reach out to Republicans.”
The measures carried substantial political risk for Hickenlooper’s party: Two Democratic state senators who supported the bills lost their seats later that year in a recall election. Hickenlooper won a second term as governor the following year by a narrow margin.
“To me, it was all driven by Bloomberg’s desire to put a beachhead for gun control somewhere in the West,” said Brophy, referring to the Everytown for Gun Safety advocacy organization led by former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg. “They picked Colorado.”
Hickenlooper alluded to some of the tension Brophy mentioned. There had been disagreement, he acknowledged, among his staff about how quick, and how sweeping, moves against high-capacity magazines should be. But he said he reached out to groups such as the National Rifle Association, to no avail, and helped craft the legislation behind the scenes.
Whatever reservations Hickenlooper had about the 15-round magazine limit then, he now says he wishes Colorado had gone further. “If I had to do it all over again, I’d go down to 10,” he added.
More recently there were signs of new momentum — and fleeting bipartisanship — in Colorado. Republican Cole Wist last year cosponsored a “red-flag” bill aimed at keeping guns away from those deemed to pose a safety risk. He lost his reelection bid to the father of an Aurora victim.
“And he probably won’t be back,” Brophy said, “because he probably can’t win a primary.”
Gov. Jared Polis, Hickenlooper’s Democratic successor in Colorado, signed a red-flag bill earlier this year. Like the 2013 legislation, it passed without the support of any Republicans.
Meanwhile, the magazine limit is still the subject of a court fight in the state, after the state’s Supreme Court agreed in April to hear arguments.
Hickenlooper has made gun control a priority of his campaign since entering the presidential race. In May he met with survivors of the Sandy Hook school shooting in Connecticut. Then came the guest column for CNN. And now Hickenlooper, who has been known in the campaign mostly for railing against socialism, has a chance to assert himself more on a signature issue that appeals to progressives.
So how would President Hickenlooper handle the issue? With the more passive approach that earned him some criticism as governor? Or with a bully pulpit?
“I think it’s a combination,” Hickenlooper said.
He talked of going to states armed with numbers like the ones he believes helped shift the debate in Colorado.
“When you lay that out in a small state the size of Colorado, people can imagine someone in their family being at risk,” he said. “Universal background checks should be a federal law. I think the way to do that is to go into some of these purple states, maybe even the red states, and give them the facts on who these criminals are who are trying to buy guns.”
He talked of meeting with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Republican with little appetite for such conversations.
“I realize that the chances of him [agreeing] are next to zero,” he said, “but you know, he’s the leader and a lot of people follow him and respect him. Someone in my position — I’m going to have to build bridges with those people.”
Kasich, who ran for president as a Republican in 2016 and has flirted with challenging Donald Trump in the 2020 primaries, hopes Hickenlooper will talk about the issue more.
“He should,” Kasich said. “The problem John has is almost the same problem I had. He’s not bombastic. He’s run a state. He’s been a mayor. So he’s practical.”