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Outrage Alone Won’t Advance Gun Control Measures

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Photo by Susan Walsh

President Barack Obama urged Congress to take action on measures to protect children from gun violence while speaking in the East Room of the White House last week. Standing with Obama are Vice President Joe Biden, and, according to the White House, law enforcement officials, victims of gun violence, and others, who the White House did not want to name.

President Obama is trying to regain some traction for federal gun control measures by visiting states that are moving forward on their own.

On Wednesday, the president speaks in Colorado, where lawmakers recently passed a series of bills requiring background checks for all gun purchases and limiting the size of ammunition clips.

Obama would like to see similar measures adopted nationwide. But if Colorado serves as an inspiration for the president, it also provides a cautionary tale.

The Century 16 movie theater in Aurora, Colo., has re-opened with a new name and a new supply of action flicks. But residents here haven't forgotten last summer's massacre, in which a gunman opened fire during a late-night screening of a Batman movie, killing 12 and wounding nearly 60 others.

This week, prosecutors announced plans to seek the death penalty for the alleged gunman James Holmes. Colorado lawmakers also responded to the shooting with new gun control laws.

State lawmaker Rhonda Fields represents the Aurora neighborhood where the movie shooting took place.

"I could only imagine what it was like sitting in that theater, about ready to see something that you were anticipating and then, you know, it's just a life-changing event," she says.

The Aurora shooting also re-opened personal wounds for Fields. Seven years earlier, her son was shot to death, shortly after he graduated from Colorado State University.

"His car and him and his fiancé were riddled with an assault rifle. So I understand the violence and how murder is just a horrible thing when someone is suddenly taken away from you," she says.

Fields became an advocate for gun control. And this year she found plenty of company in Colorado's Democratic House and Senate. The Senate president says lawmakers were "forced" to act after the mass shootings in Aurora and later at a Connecticut elementary school.

President Obama has been counting on that same public outrage to advance gun control bills nationwide.

"This is our best chance in more than a decade to take common-sense steps that will save lives," he said at the White House last week.

Obama warned that even though polls show strong support for universal background checks and other gun control measures, they face powerful opposition from the gun lobby.

That's also true here in Colorado, where Dudley Brown runs an organization called Rocky Mountain Gun Owners. His office in the small town of Windsor is located near a river named for the gunpowder French trappers once stored there.

"This is a very western state with traditional western values," he says. "And citizens had to have firearms for self defense and right now that's still the case."

Brown complains universal background checks are just a step towards identifying gun owners so the government can seize their weapons, and he calls the 15-bullet limit on ammunition clips arbitrary. He's promising political payback in next year's election that could cost Colorado Democrats their majorities.

"I liken it to the proverbial hunting season," Brown says. "We tell gun owners, there's a time to hunt deer. And the next election is the time to hunt Democrats."

Similar threats have had a powerful effect in Washington, where universal background checks now face an uphill battle. Here in Colorado, state Representative Fields says she has no regrets.

"I just feel like it was the right thing to do," she says. It was the right thing to do for public safety. And if I get recalled because of it, I still think that I was on the right side of history."

Fields says she has a message for the president and Congress: Don't give up.

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