How Colorado beat the National Rifle Association

THE stray bullet from a gang shootout that hit 6-year-old Broderick Bell in the head on June 9 was the final straw for Colorado.

"There are rules even for gangs," a member of my cabinet said as we agonized over this Denver shooting. "It isn't all right to hurt babies."


He was right. For the sake of our children and our neighborhoods, we had to at least try to get handguns out of the hands of teen-agers.

Three months later, we did. On Sept. 13, with legislators of both parties at my side, I signed a bill that made it illegal for anyone under 18 to own or carry a handgun -- one of 10 bills relating to juvenile violence passed at a quickly arranged five-day special session.


The only exceptions to the ban are for licensed hunting, target practice or shooting competition.

Conviction on a first offense is a misdemeanor, with a mandatory sentence of five days to a year in a juvenile detention center; a second conviction is a felony, with a sentence up to three years.

This isn't the first such law in the nation. But it's hard to understate the difficulty of passing such a law in a state where the outdoors and guns are so much a way of life, and where the National Rifle Association is so deeply entrenched in our politics.

We succeeded for several reasons:

* Coloradans were fed up and frightened, and they told their legislators so. Even though murders were down this year, there has been an eerie randomness and senselessness to the shootings.

Several young people, like Broderick Bell, have been caught in gang crossfire or shot by strangers. (Miraculously, Broderick has recovered, though he is undergoing rehabilitation.)

* Many people had a hand in planning the special session: prosecutors, police chiefs, sheriffs and legislators.

* In the regular four-month legislative session, issues tend to get lost. This special session put a glaring spotlight on juvenile violence. It left no place for lawmakers to hide.


* As governor, I took on the NRA directly and refused to let it intimidate me.

The day the special session opened, I said, "If the NRA in Washington is so out of touch with Colorado that it cannot even support the simple proposition that a 14-year-old has no business carrying a loaded gun to school, then the NRA is part of the problem."

To the association's credit, its national lobbyists participated in negotiations on the gun bill and ended up supporting its provisions.

This and the other new laws are already starting to make themselves felt.

Juveniles are being arrested and sentenced for carrying handguns illegally. One Denver couple recently turned in their son when they found a Saturday night special on the floorboard of his car.

To deal with the rise in arrests, emergency cell space has been obtained in county jails.


With many juvenile centers at 170 percent of capacity, the police had chosen not to make arrests because there was no place to put such juveniles.

We've also installed a tough new system for hardened, professional young criminals aged 14 to 18.

If convicted of violent crimes, they can be treated as adults and face prison sentences of up to five years as against the two-year maximum for youthful offenders.

In addition, parents are now required to appear in court with their children; names of juveniles charged with major felonies can be made public, and counties have specific authority to adopt ordinances dealing with curfews, loitering and graffiti.

Will the gun ban and the other new laws solve the problem? No. But they are a beginning.

One step at a time, Coloradans are prepared to take back their blocks and their state and their future.


Roy Romer, a Democrat, is governor of Colorado.