Courtroom wrangling clarifies gun law

One legal battle averted, another still looming

DENVER – A lawsuit against gun-control laws signed by Gov. John Hickenlooper dissolved into confusion in a federal courtroom Wednesday morning, but by the day’s end, Coloradans received a lot more clarity on the future of their new gun laws.

A group of gun-rights advocates led by 55 county sheriffs, including every sheriff in Southwest Colorado, sued Hickenlooper in May over bills to require background checks for private gun sales and to ban the sale of ammunition magazines larger than 15 rounds.

They have two basic arguments in their case: First, they say the laws violate the Second Amendment. Next, they say the magazine bill was so vague that it could ban nearly all ammunition magazines and prevent gun owners from letting anyone else handle their weapons, even professional gunsmiths for cleaning and maintenance.

Hickenlooper has always argued that the common-sense interpretation of the law would not turn ordinary gun owners into criminals. He and Attorney General John Suthers issued memos about how the law should be enforced narrowly.

But the plaintiffs doubted the effectiveness of the memos, and they were ready for a daylong battle in court Wednesday in an attempt to get Chief U.S. District Judge Marcia Krieger to block parts of the law from being enforced.

However, email negotiations late Tuesday produced a compromise. Both sides agreed that Suthers’ memo, with some additional tweaks, could be used as a temporary injunction that Krieger could issue to prevent overzealous enforcement of the law.

But Krieger shocked everyone Wednesday morning when she opened the hearing by saying she would not sign off on the injunction.

Using the tone of voice that college professors adopt when students don’t do their homework, Krieger told plaintiffs’ lawyers that they hadn’t given her any reason to block the law.

“If the governor says this is how it’s going to be enforced, then what does an injunction by this court add to that?” Krieger asked attorneys for the plaintiffs.

David Kopel, the lead lawyer for the plaintiffs, said an injunction by a federal court would offer additional comfort to gun owners.

But Krieger wouldn’t accept the argument.

“Sounds like you don’t trust the governor,” she told Kopel.

Despite the judge’s refusal to issue an injunction, both sides hailed Tuesday night’s agreement as a step forward.

Hickenlooper and the state’s legal team got the plaintiffs to accept, with a few modifications, the original plan the governor and attorney general released for enforcing the law.

“This is what was intended all the way along,” Hickenlooper said at an afternoon news conference.

The case now turns to the larger Second Amendment issue.

Hickenlooper’s lead lawyer, Solicitor General Dan Domenico, said in general, he was pleased by how things went this week.

“As far as we’re concerned, the baseplate issue should be off the table, and we can be talking now about whether the high-capacity magazine ban violates the Second Amendment,” Domenico said.

Kopel called the rewritten memo by Suthers “very satisfactory.” He, too, is looking forward to arguing the case on Second Amendment grounds at a trial in Krieger’s courtroom.

Kopel’s side is ready to go to trial as soon as next month, he said, although the current schedule calls for a trial sometime in December.

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