Last week two Colorado State Senators were removed from office in the state’s first ever recall election, dealing a symbolic blow to the gun control movement. In many states across the country, from Georgia to Montana, recall elections can only take place in response to malfeasance on the part of the official being recalled. However, in Colorado these two state legislators were ousted on ideological grounds – they supported gun control laws in the Colorado Senate in response to the shootings in Aurora last year that left 12 dead, over 58 injured, and devastated the country. State Senate President John Morse and State Senator Angela Giron, both Democrats, were officially recalled on September 10th following a campaign by gun-rights advocates and a petition which amassed over 10,000 signatures.
While these two legislators made another unpopular decision when voting in favor of new water regulations for the Arkansas River, the main focus of the recall campaign remained gun control. It’s hard to imagine anyone getting seriously aggravated about water-related legislature, but hot-button issues like gun control can easily garner a significant response. Morse and Giron, along with many other Colorado state legislators, pushed through new gun control laws this past spring that would increase background checks and limit ammunition magazines to 15 rounds. This new law was passed in response to the numerous mass shootings of the past year, most notably the slaughter of twelve innocent people at a movie theater in Aurora, and the Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings in Connecticut.
These reforms are perfectly understandable given the tragic circumstances and such brutal murders. In Australia, following the 1996 Port Arthur massacre, sweeping gun legislation banned all firearms in the country. This new set of laws was quite effective in reducing gun violence, as there have been zero mass shootings in the 17 years since the law was passed; and while originally unpopular most Australians today are happy to live in a safer nation. Therefore, expanding background checks is a reasonable response to the Aurora shooting, as well as to other shootings over the past year. However, what remains troubling is the mass mobilization of gun-rights advocates and the overwhelming influence they have over their government.
As I argued in my article “A Shameful Senate”, the gun lobby has far too much political power in comparison to its relative size. This is mostly due to the highly organized and extremely well funded gun-rights movement, spearheaded by the bombastic force of the National Rifle Association (NRA). One of the main problems with lobbying is that they greatly influence policy and are not elected or accountable to the public. In addition, lobbyists by definition do not represent a majority, and are a perfect example of the problem with factions that James Madison and Alexander Hamilton wrote about in The Federalist Papers.
But hold on one second, over 10,000 people signed the recall petition – and didn’t voters recall the Senators? While it is true that a majority of people voted (50.96 to 49.04 for Morse, so only a tiny margin) to recall these two Senators, polls displayed that Colorado citizens widely didn’t support the recall effort, with 60% saying that voters should wait for the next re-election. However, whatever number of people did or did not support this recall effort, it still passed. I am an avid supporter of exercising one’s democratic rights, and I respect the decision made by voters in Colorado, but at the same time I am still critical of the gun lobby’s influence. If 60% of citizens suggested waiting until re-election, then its likely that many of them did not turn out to vote in the recall, plus recall elections tend to draw smaller numbers of voters to begin with. This leads to the conclusion that many people who came out to vote were strong advocates of gun rights who were forcefully pursuing the recall.
Therein lies the underlying issue of lobbying groups like the NRA, the fact that they can amass enough people to recall elected officials without majority support. This applies not only to the gun lobby, but also to many other lobbying bodies, and illustrates the issue of factions I mentioned above. In this particular fight the gun control advocates found themselves better financed (courtesy of Michael Bloomberg & Mayors Against Illegal Guns) than the gun lobby for a change, but still lost the election. This historic Colorado recall is certainly a time for the gun-control lobby to evaluate its organization and strategy, as well as for states across the country to reflect on their own legislative system.