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TRAIL MIX | Candidates clash over gun control in swing 6th Congressional District

Author: Ernest Luning - August 17, 2018 - Updated: August 30, 2018

In this July 27, 2012, file photo, crosses are displayed in honor of the victims of the Aurora movie theater shooting, which killed 12 people and injured 70. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren, File)

Colorado’s 6th Congressional District looks like a lot of the districts across the country where the battle for control of the U.S. House is being fought  — often suburban, represented by Republicans but won two years ago by Democrat Hillary Clinton — but it has a history that most other swing districts lack.

Two of the deadliest and most notorious mass shootings in recent American history happened inside the district’s past or current borders: the massacre at Columbine High School, which took place in 1999 when the district included that part of Jefferson County, and the Aurora theater shooting six years ago.

Democrats have been trying to unseat U.S. Rep. Mike Coffman, the Republican incumbent, in the last four elections, but so far the Army and Marine Corps veteran from Aurora has confounded their efforts.

Coffman, who was first elected to the legislature 30 years ago and won statewide office three times before winning a seat in Congress, regularly outperforms other Republicans on the ballot, in 2016 defeating Morgan Carroll, a former president of the state Senate, by more than 8 points.

But this year, in the wake of the Valentine’s Day school shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, which left 17 dead and 17 injured, Democrats and their allies believe Coffman is vulnerable in ways he hasn’t been in past elections. They think Army Ranger veteran Jason Crow is the candidate who can defeat him, and they think that gun control — a topic Coffman’s previous challengers have mostly ignored — could be a key issue.

Not only does Crow match Coffman’s military background, he also speaks comfortably about growing up a hunter and his familiarity with firearms before laying out his gun-control proposals, which include universal background checks, a ban on large-capacity magazines and restoration of the ban on military-style assault weapons.

In his first ad, released a week after the Parkland shooting, Crow slammed Coffman for taking tens of thousands of dollars from the National Rifle Association — more than any other member of Colorado’s congressional delegation — and talked about the “active shooter” drills his young children conduct at their elementary school.

“All he does is tweet about his thoughts and prayers, and he does nothing — because of the money that he takes and the people that he’s loyal to,” Crow says in the ad.

Coffman and his supporters say the Republican doesn’t march in lock-step with the NRA and point to bipartisan legislation he’s sponsored aimed at curbing gun violence, including a school safety measure that passed the House this spring and a bill that would assist states looking to implement “red flag” bills, which would enable officials to remove firearm from people courts have determined pose a risk to themselves or others.

“Giving law enforcement a tool to proactively remove firearms from the hands of a potentially dangerous individual, when combined with due process protections, makes sense,” Coffman said in a statement in May when he introduced the red flag bill. He added: “These laws are respectful of due process and the 2nd Amendment.”

But that isn’t good enough for Crow and other Democrats, who convened a town hall attended by more than 100 people in Aurora earlier this month to discuss state and federal responses to gun violence.

U.S. Rep. Seth Moulton of Massachusetts, a rising star in the party and a potential 2020 presidential candidate, was among the panelists joining Crow for the two-hour town hall. Also on the panel were Joe Neguse, the Democratic nominee in the 2nd Congressional District; Tom Sullivan, a Democrat and gun-control activist running in House District 37; Sandy and Lonnie Phillips, founders of Survivors Empowered; Tay Anderson, a former president of Never Again Colorado; and Jane Dougherty, who lost a sister in the 2012 shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School.

“I’ve had enough of empty promises and failed leadership from the politicians we trust to keep us safe,” Crow said. “Inaction is not an option. It’s time for common-sense gun violence solutions that can build broad coalitions and move our country forward.”

At the end of the town hall, Crow told the crowd, “The bottom line is, we have common sense proposals. This isn’t for lack of ideas. We lack the will, we lack the votes, we lack the courage to make it happen. If the people in leadership now don’t have the courage, you just kick them out. That’s the bottom line.”

A recurring topic during the town hall was the proposition that politicians have reached across the aisle to craft bipartisan legislation — including red flag bills in Massachusetts and Indiana — to tackle the problem.

After the town hall, Crow told Colorado Politics that Coffman’s occasional gestures toward gun safety don’t cut it.

“I’m optimistic that we’re going to be able to keep the momentum up, and we’re going to be able to do something about it. At the end of the day, I think this really is about making sure we get the right people in office,” he said.

Coffman, Crow continued, “is not willing to do anything on these issues. Time and time again, he pays lip service to these things — and there’s no progress. Where’s the legislation on universal background checks, magazine limitations, military-style assault weapons ban? He took $2,000 from the NRA two months ago, and he still has an A rating from them last time I checked. He’s doubling down on the gun lobby and their capture of this issue. We’re going to kick him out, and we’re going to start over.”

A Coffman campaign spokesman disputed this characterization.

“Mike Coffman has been a bipartisan leader focused on common-sense solutions, authorizing legislation to make it harder for the mentally ill to have access to guns, and strengthening school security,” Tyler Sandberg, Coffman’s campaign manager, wrote in a text message to Colorado Politics. “On the other hand, Jason Crow is pushing for gun bans and sweeping new gun control laws that would infringe on the rights of law-abiding gun owners.”

Should Republicans like Coffman, a member of the bipartisan Problem Solvers Caucus and a lawmaker who occasionally breaks with his party’s harder-line gun rights proponents — he came under sustained fire this spring after unveiling the red flag bill — be  tossed aside or embraced?

“He has a 96 percent voting record with Trump, and we need people who are actually going to stand up to this dangerous commander-in-chief,” Moulton said.

Asked whether it counts for anything that his Republican colleague regularly insists that he’ll stand up to President Trump, Moulton frowned.

“Ninety-six percent,” he said. “I like Mike, he’s a nice guy, but 96 percent voting record with the president is not cutting it.”

Ernest Luning

Ernest Luning

Ernest Luning is a political correspondent for Colorado Politics. He has covered politics and government for newspapers and online news sites in Colorado for more than 25 years, including at the Highlands Ranch Herald, the Jefferson Sentinels chain of community newspapers and the Aurora Sentinel, where he was the city hall and cops reporter. After editing the Aurora Daily Sun, he was a political reporter and blogger for The Colorado Independent site. For nearly a decade, he was a senior political reporter and occasional editor at The Colorado Statesman before the 119-year-old publication merged with Colorado Politics in 2017.