By Sara Wilson
Hundreds of women gathered at the Colorado Capitol Monday, some arriving before sunrise, to demand a complete firearm ban and buyback program in the state.
They spread out on the Capitol lawn in camping chairs and on picnic blankets, reading, meeting one another and holding signs urging action to reduce firearm violence — many displaying the text “Here 4 The Kids,” the name of the national organization behind the effort.
“People say ‘It’s not guns, it’s people.’ Well, I would say that if I had a giant magnet today that could suck up all the guns in the city, there would be fewer dead people tomorrow,” said Edna Nichols, a retired high school English teacher who took the first train into Denver Monday morning to sit in.
Nichols, who described herself as a survivor of childhood gun violence, said she largely agrees with Here 4 The Kids’ ultimate goal: an executive order from Gov. Jared Polis banning guns, as well as a statewide gun buyback program.
That proposed executive order would declare a state of emergency due to gun violence risk in the state and ban the use, loading, possession or carrying of any gun in the state, including for hunting and law enforcement. The buyback program would be administered by local sheriff offices and would attempt to reclaim every gun in the state.
Firearms are the leading cause of death for children and teens in the United States, surpassing car accidents and other injuries. From 1999 to 2019, Denver and the surrounding metro area had more school shootings per 1 million people than any other large metro area. In 2021, 1,059 people died in Colorado from gun violence.
“The obsession over the Second Amendment is saying that the right to bear arms somehow trumps children’s right to life. That’s not a country with a soul,” said Here 4 The Kids co-founder Saira Rao told Newsline. “We’re doing what civil rights activists and heroes have done in the past, which is civil disobedience. We’re demanding our elected officials to save our children.”
Rao is a former lawyer, author and activist who ran unsuccessfully to replace U.S. Rep. Diana DeGette of Denver in the 2018 primary. She co-founded Here 4 The Kids with advocate and activist Tina Strawn.
On Monday, the women — though there were some men, children and dogs also present — gathered on the Capitol steps for 10 minutes of silence every hour and listened to the names of people who have died from gun violence.
Polis’ office said that, on constitutional and legal grounds, he would not sign the executive order.
“The Governor supports our Second Amendment right to bear arms and also shares the concerns about improving public safety including reducing gun violence, which is why the Governor is committed to making Colorado one of the top ten safest states,” his office said in a statement. “The Governor takes the weighty responsibility of executive action and the trust Coloradans placed in him to govern responsibly seriously, and will not issue an unconstitutional order that will be struck down in court simply to make a public relations statement — he will continue to focus on real solutions to help make Colorado one of the ten safest states.”
Additionally, a buyback program would require action from state lawmakers and appropriated funds. The legislative session adjourned for the year in early May.
“Our elected officials have failed us. It’s intellectually dishonest for them to say they can’t (ban guns.) Of course they can. They abolished slavery. Women got the right to vote. Women got the right to an abortion and then lost it. We can do all sorts of things,” Rao said.
The abolishment of slavery and women’s suffrage were both achieved through constitutional amendment, which requires congressional action and approval from 38 states.
Polis, a Democrat, did sign a series of firearm regulations into law this year.
Last week, he signed a ban on unserialized firearms, also known as ghost guns, that can be assembled at home without a background check. The new laws also include a three-day waiting period to possess a gun after purchasing it and an increase of the minimum age to buy a gun to 21. A new law also expands eligible petitioners who can ask a judge to temporarily take away a potentially dangerous person’s firearm under the state’s extreme risk protection order statute. Doctors, educators and district attorneys are now among the people, in addition to law enforcement and household members, who can ask a judge to take that action. Another new law makes it easier for victims to sue gun manufacturers and dealers by removing a state liability protection for the industry.
A bill to ban so-called assault weapons died during its first committee hearing during the most recent legislative session.
“The piecemeal state legislation is not working,” Rao said.
‘They all need to go’
Barbara Harrell, a Denver-area human resource professional, heard about the sit-in through social media and sat near the Capitol reading Rao’s book on white women’s role in dismantling white supremacy.
Monday’s sit-in was a specific call to action for white women. Organizers say white women are privileged and less likely to be the target of law enforcement for showing civil disobedience. Rao and Strawn are both women of color.
“I strongly believe that women of color have been on the front lines for so long. As a white woman, I had no excuse not to be here, so I canceled everything, I had to be here,” Harrell said.
She said her 3-year-old daughter went through her first lockdown drill this year when a person known to police was acting strangely around the school. She imagined her child in a closet with her classmates unaware, and without the right language, of what was going on. No student was harmed that day as a threat did not make it onto campus, but Harrell teared up imagining the horror of parents who lost their children to mass shootings.
“Obviously, kids dying isn’t enough for (a gun ban) to get passed through, so I don’t know what it’s going to take for guns to be outlawed in this country,” she said.
Danya Firestone, a dean in Denver Public Schools, sat on a plaid blanket, cheering on the honking cars passing on Lincoln Street. She said she does at least one daily search on students who have safety plans in place, similar to the student at East High School who shot two deans as they searched him in March. She said she has little to no training on how to respond if a student has a weapon, but the search is still part of her job.
“I don’t want to have to go to work every day thinking about that. I want to go to work thinking about kids and what I can do to give them the best chance of success when they leave high school. That’s my job,” she said. “My job isn’t to think about how to defend my students. It’s not thinking about what my exit strategy is. It’s not what I’m good at and not what I prepared for.”
Emily, a gifted and talented teacher from Littleton who preferred not to share her last name, feels the same. She said teachers and educators were put on the “front lines” of the gun violence crisis without their permission. The steps taken to strengthen school security and harden campuses to outside threats aren’t enough to eradicate the violence and place the responsibility on educators.
“We can put as many security locks on doors and systems in place as possible. But at the end of the day, whoever wants to walk by with any sort of weapon — especially one that can take out multiple teachers and students at a time — that’s going to still be a problem,” she said.
“We can reference so many other countries that don’t live this way,” she said. “It doesn’t seem that aggressive to ban weapons, because other societies certainly live without them and thrive without them and still have a sense of safety.”
Caitlynn Davis, who sat with Firestone, said that a total gun ban makes sense to her, because gun violence is more than mass shootings with an assault-style weapon. She pointed to instances of domestic violence and the prevalence of handguns in those cases.
“I think banning all guns takes away the nuance of what gun is killing what person,” she said. “They are all killing people and they all need to go.”
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