Last Monday, Colorado House Representatives debated one of the many bills that are expected to come from this legislative session. House Bill 23-1165, concerning the authority of a Board of County Commissioners to Prohibit Discharge of Firearms in Unincorporated Areas of a County. The bill which was introduced on the House floor on February 2 was assigned to the Transportation, Housing & Local Government Committee where testimony was heard prior to it making its way out of the committee and onto the house floor.
Current state law forbids counties from passing their own ordinances in the unincorporated areas within their county. House Bill 23-1165 specifies that county boards can prohibit firearms from being discharged if there are 35 dwellings or more per square mile in an unincorporated area. Exceptions include police officers and shooting ranges.
Prime Sponsors of the bill are, Rep. J. Amabile, Rep. K. McCormick, Sen. S. Jaquez Lewis, and Sen. D. Roberts all Democrats. “You would be able to say in this area, shooting in your backyard isn’t safe, just like in a town,” said Rep. Judy Amabile, D-Boulder. “We want them to go to a gun range and do that in a really safe way, or they can still go to the Forest Service. There’s still a lot of opportunity to shoot, you just can’t do it if you live in a dense subdivision.”
The idea for the bill was brought to Representative Amabile by residents of St. Mary’s Glacier in Clear Creek County, who testified that their neighbors are firing guns in close proximity to their homes.
“People were using large caliber rifles, presumably with a bump stock, on a one-third acre lot, using a pine tree as a back stop,” one resident testified. “It’s simply unsafe. They lack a proper berm. They lack a proper backstop.”
Other neighbors complained about the sound from all of the weapons firing around them.
House Bill 23-1165 would allow counties to regulate the activity on private property in areas where the density reaches 35 dwellings per square mile. Currently, counties can adopt ordinances on firearm discharge for areas with at least 100 people per square mile.
HB23-1165 has been described by Republicans as a rapid bill that moved quickly through the committee and did not offer consideration from Colorado Counties Inc nor the County Sheriffs of Colorado prior to being brought to the floor. In fact, there was little to no input from any county commissioners or county sheriff on this bill as it worked through the committee. Those who did speak up stated that they already had all the laws they needed to outlaw the discharge of weapons that use a bump stock, or fully automatic weapons. Those laws, however, are unenforceable, which those who commented stated this bill would be just another unenforceable law.
During each of the three readings of the bill on the House floor, House Republicans brought forth robust discussion about the bill’s intentions as well as offering several amendments to the bill. Early discussion on the bill sparked Republican concern for rural areas, where using a firearm to protect their livestock from certain apex predators including coyotes and the reintroduced wolves is a necessary way of life.
Bill sponsor Amabile offered amendment L016 to the bill including the text, “BY A PERSON ENGAGED IN A LAWFUL HUNTING ACTIVITY; (e) BY A PERSON ENGAGED IN LIVESTOCK MANAGEMENT; (f) PURSUANT TO A WILDLIFE MANAGEMENT ACTIVITY CONDUCTED BY A GOVERNMENT AGENCY” meaning that hunting on private property and use of firearms to manage livestock from predators would continue to be permitted.
Representative Holtorf from the 63rd District, which includes all or part of Logan, Morgan, Phillips, Sedgwick, Washington, Weld, and Yuma counties, including the communities of Sterling, Fort Morgan, Brush, Yuma, and Wray, took to the floor to speak on behalf of the Democrat-initiated amendment stating, “This amendment is the first step to bridging the gap of division. This hits home for me.” Holtorf went on to tell a story that the previous weekend he had gone home to his family ranch where calving season was beginning. He detailed that 2 calves were born a few weeks early and in the early morning one of those calves had been killed by a large male coyote and it was at his direction to his ranch hands to shoot and kill that coyote. Holtorf also indicated that through the rest of the weekend every 2-3 hours through the night a firearm was discharged to keep the predators at bay.
Holtorf went on to say, “I don’t care what our neighbors thought of the noise every 2 to 3 hours, this is the country, and we were putting predators on notice. Every day on a farm or a ranch is life and death, this amendment does give consideration to rural Colorado.”
Amendment L016 passed unanimously. This show of bipartisanship would not be long lived through the course of the three readings, however, as House Republicans would begin to look at the wording of the bill and analyze what the intent may be behind the inclusion as well as the exclusion of certain terms.
Representative Luck, A Republican, representing District 60, which includes Chaffee, Custer, Fremont, and Teller counties clarified that this bill would amend the current revised statutes that are already in place. She then expressed her concern as well as the concern of her constituents about the legal language that has been changed in the writing of the bill.
For instance, the bill changes verbiage, “right to bear arms” with “to own and possess arms”. Luck stated, “The words of the Colorado Constitution as well as the United States Constitution ‘to bear arms’ comes with weight. There are other ways to construe the intent for this bill without narrowing the constitutional right from the broad category of “to bear arms” to “own or possess arms.” This leads one to wonder if this bill would be doing more than even what the bill sponsors intend.”
Amabile rebutted Lucks comments, “The intent to use these words was to clarify that you can own or possess firearms. There is nothing in this bill that takes away the right to own possess or even use your firearm.”
Representative DeGaaf Republican Representative of District 22, which includes a portion of northeast Colorado Springs in El Paso County added to the conversation, “To own and possess arms is not the same as bearing arms. Our Democrat colleagues suggest they have included this change of wording to make things clear, but the definition they are now replacing the words of our Founding Fathers with is a restriction on our Constitutional Rights and a violation of the Colorado and United States Constitutions. This wording must be changed back to ‘bear arms’, it is a matter of trust, our constituents in rural Colorado recognize an infringement when they see one no matter how small but tactical it is. The only reason to omit these words would be to infringe upon the rights.”
DeGaaf, who spoke at length during each reading of the bill illustrated that people who move to and live in unincorporated areas do so for “unincorporated reasons”. Property owners in unincorporated areas have less stringent rules to follow by way of ordinances. “A simple solution is that the people from the Nanny State of Boulder should stay where they are.”
Republican Representative Ty Winter who represents District 47, which includes all of Baca, Bent, Crowley, Kiowa, Las Animas, Otero, and Prowers counties and parts of Huerfano and Pueblo counties in southern Colorado pointed out, “People are moving to rural areas, but when they come, they do not adhere to our way of living they instead want to change the way we have been living and surviving for 100 years. Gunshots are nothing new in rural Colorado, many who testified at the committee hearing stated they could hear gun fire from fully automatic firearms but when they called the police those guns had been put away and there was nothing for local police to do. That is because this law as well as so many others are totally unenforceable.”
Winters went on to say, “This is the first step, the first strike on the second amendment and at what point will this bill be used as a mechanism to put more constraints on our constitutional rights? This will not promote safety and will cost people money if they must pay to go to a shooting range just to site in their rifles or have target practice as they are teaching their family proper gun safety.”
Representative Holtorf presented an amendment during the second reading of the bill to amend the printed bill, “A RESOLUTION TO DESIGNATE AN AREA PURSUANT TO THIS SUBSECTION (1), THE BOARD OF COUNTY COMMISSIONERS MAY CONSULT WITH THE SHERIFF AND CONSIDER THE SHERIFF’S RECOMMENDATION OF WHETHER TO ADOPT THE RESOLUTION.”
Holtorf stated that this amendment is a, “public safety amendment as it will be the sheriff in these counties who will be tasked with enforcement therefore the board of commissioners should check with the sheriff to see if they have the means to enforce the law.”
The bill states that County Commissioners can impose by resolution, restrictions on discharging a firearm in certain unincorporated areas with at least 35 dwellings per square mile. Those certain unincorporated areas and dwellings are where concern lies for Colorado House Republicans.
An amendment was brought forth by Representative DeGraaf to define dwelling and to omit the term mobile home or trailer. Representative Willison who spoke in favor of the amendment stated, “If the intent is to only count dwellings that are primary residences, then this amendment should pass with no issue. This will clarify the exact intent of the bill and will not change the nature of the bill. If the sponsors of the bill intend to use every possible dwelling in an area such as RV or camper, we will know their intent if they vote no on this amendment.”
Willson went on to say, “This amendment is good for the bill. To not vote for this motion would cause each person here to question your motives as this amendment could clear up the type of dwellings that would be counted. Help your collogues trust you.”
The amendment did not pass.
The conclusion of each of the three readings resulted in party line votes to advance the bill to the Colorado Senate Floor, where it will likely pass and be sent to Governor Jared Polis’ desk for his signature passing the bill into law.
What does this bills’ potential and likely passage into law mean for those of us in Southeast Colorado? As the bill reads now, county commissioners could by resolution impose these restrictions in unincorporated areas if there are at least 35 dwellings per square mile. They can consult with the sheriff in their county and must hold public hearings prior to passing a resolution. Currently there are no areas in Kiowa County that would be affected, however areas where you may travel for recreation or to visit family where you once may have been able to set up target practice may soon restrict that activity.
The Kiowa County Independent will continue to follow this bill as it moves through the State Legislature. Attempts to contact local leadership and the Sheriffs in the area were not successful due to the holiday.