In the wake of the March 22 shootings in Boulder, Colorado Community Media’s Ryan Dunn spoke to gun safety activist Shannon Watts about the state of firearms legislation in Colorado
Watts, the founder of Moms Demand Action and a former Boulder resident, is one of the leading gun safety activists in the country and the author of “Fight Like a Mother,” a memoir and guide to grassroots activism.
Their conversation has been slightly edited for clarity.
The suspect in this shooting is 21-year-old Ahmad Alissa, a recent graduate of Arvada West High School. How does a young person carry out a shooting like this?
Shannon Watts: There’s a reason that America has a gun homicide rate 25 times than any other high-income country, and that’s because we make arsenals and ammunition easily accessible to anyone, anywhere, anytime — no questions asked.
Boulder had an assault weapons ban in place for two years. Just a couple of weeks ago, the NRA sued to prevent Boulder from making its policies different than the state’s laws. And as a result, that assault weapons ban was temporarily undone and not enforced. Days later there was a mass shooting with what many are calling an AR-style weapon. We are all only as safe as the closest city or the closest state with the weakest gun laws.
The shooter has a criminal history and has been characterized as “mentally unstable” by his brother. How was he able to gain access to a gun?
SW: It will be interesting to learn the details of how he procured the gun. If he was not adjudicated as mentally ill, then that would not have been on his record and wouldn’t have prevented him from having easy access to a gun. If it was a misdemeanor, then again, a background check would not have necessarily prevented him from having easy access to guns.
Colorado has a red flag law — which was passed after the tragedy in Parkland — which allows judges to issue a temporary restraining order that will remove the guns from someone who is a risk to themselves or others.
We give weapons of war — we make them available to anyone, anywhere, anytime with no questions asked, and it is in part why we have a 25 times higher gun homicide rate than any high-income country.
I think it’s really important to say that in Colorado, there’s a lot of attention paid to the mass shootings that happen, and not to the daily gun violence that happens. Mass shootings make up about one percent of gun violence in this country. It’s really the tip of the iceberg in the crisis we are experiencing — a crisis that is exasperated by the COVID-19 pandemic.
2020 was the deadliest year for gun violence in a very long time, yet mass shootings slowed down because people weren’t out in public.
It’s just important to point out that 100 Americans are shot and killed in this country in everyday gun violence. That’s about 20 mass shootings a day. They just don’t get the same attention because not the same amount of people are killed at one time in one place.
How has the COVID-19 pandemic affected gun violence?
SW: 2020 was one of the worst years on record for gun violence. And that’s because gun violence intervention programs and city centers weren’t able to do the work they get out and do in public.
It’s because women were isolated with domestic abusers who have easy access to guns. It’s because people with suicidal ideation, maybe because of the pandemic, have easy access to guns. And we also know that tens of millions of kids were at home unexpectedly from school, also with easy access to guns.
So, when you look at what is happening, and what’s been happening in the last couple of weeks, as we start to see society get back to normal, America is the only country where that means also that public shootings resume in places where we should feel safest, like grocery stores or spas.
Tens of millions of guns were sold in the last year because the gun lobby uses the chaos and fear around COVID-19 to juice gun sales. Tens of millions of guns were sold, many to first-time gun buyers, and many to people in states that don’t require a permit or a background check or any training to have a gun. And I am very afraid that is a recipe for disaster that is going to play out like we’ve seen in Atlanta and Boulder over and over again until our lawmakers act.
What is the current status of gun legislation and gun culture in Colorado?
SW: Right now, Colorado is considering secure storage legislation, which would require gun owners to keep their guns locked, unloaded, and separate from ammunition. And that’s because when you look at shootings, most school shooters are students, they’re not strangers who walked in off the streets.
This issue — the issue of gun violence prevention — is a big reason why we were able to flip the legislature in Colorado. It’s why Corey Gardner lost; John Hickenlooper won. Colorado is now solidly a gun safety state — there’s no going back.
But it also is home to an incredibly radicalized gun organization that’s even to the right of the NRA called the Rocky Mountain Gun Owners. And they fight tooth and nail to stop gun safety bills from passing.
Moms Demand Action volunteers in Colorado have become a political powerhouse. They helped pass the assault weapons ban in Boulder, they’ve helped passed the good gun laws through the Colorado legislature, and they’re holding lawmakers accountable both at the state and federal level. And I really do believe that with the Biden administration and having the majority and the Senate and House, we are hopefully on the precipice of major change at a federal level.