Blocked Boulder assault-weapons ban renews gun law questions

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A makeshift fence stands around the parking lot outside a King Soopers grocery store where a mass shooting took place a day earlier in Boulder, Colo., Tuesday, March 23, 2021. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)

SALT LAKE CITY – Nearly three years before a gunman walked into a crowded supermarket in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains with an AR-15 style weapon and killed 10 people, the city of Boulder, Colorado, voted to ban assault weapons.

Leaders had hoped to prevent the kind of mass shooting that’s struck the state more than once over the last two decades. But just 10 days before Monday’s rampage, the measure was blocked in court after a lawsuit backed by the National Rifle Association. The ruling came under a Colorado law that bars local officials from making their own gun laws.

Similar preemption laws have become the norm in over 40 U.S. states since the 1980s. Just a handful of states still allow local officials to make their own rules on guns, according to the group Everytown For Gun Safety. In Florida, officials can be fined up to $5,000 if they do, and in Nevada, they could be subject to hefty damages if laws are struck down in court.

At the federal level, President Joe Biden said Tuesday that “we have to act" to pass reform legislation and Democrats said they are pushing toward a vote on expanded background checks, but it faces a difficult road in the Senate. Congress has not passed any major gun control laws since the mid-1990s, leaving most significant gun legislation in states' hands.

Supporters say preemption measures allow states to be consistent in firearm laws so that law-abiding gun owners aren't facing a patchwork of different rules in different parts of the state. The NRA has called the Boulder ordinance counter-productive, and argued it was a clear violation of Colorado's preemption law passed in 2003.

Critics, though, argue those measures serve to intimidate any officials considering firearm restrictions. Boulder is known for its liberal politics, but when the council was discussing the ordinance, opponents who appeared to be from outside the area gathered to oppose the plan in a scene that became increasingly tense, said Rachel Friend, a city council member.

“The reason we had the assault weapons ban was to prevent exactly the sort of tragedy that happened yesterday,” said Friend, who worked to support the idea before she was elected.

The ordinance was challenged in court shortly after it passed. Robert L. Chambers, a Boulder resident who was listed as the lead plaintiff, said he was recruited to be part of the NRA-backed gun rights case. A hunter who owns numerous firearms, he declined to say if he has an AR-15. But he said he has no regrets about helping overturn the local ban on semi-automatic carbines like the one used by the grocery store gunman.