The debate over gun control in Colorado could be pushing the ragged edge of an already frail tolerance between the metropolitan and rural cultures of Wyoming’s southern neighbor.
The rural side could very well end up on the more compromised end, said Colorado state Rep. Matt Soper, R-Delta, in response to gun-control measures making their way now through that state’s legislature.
Wyomingites might be tempted to use that as even more ammunition for making fine sport of mocking the steady bleeding away of Colorado’s “true West” credibility.
But residents of the Cowboy State might be better served by an abiding sense of foreboding, Soper said, because as Colorado goes, so could the region.
And in a recent post on Twitter, Soper ratcheted up the rhetoric saying that foisting gun restrictions on rural Coloradans could spark a “civil war.”
Soper later apologized for using inflammatory language, which he said was out of character for him.
But he remains adamant that Colorado doesn’t need more gun control and said Wyoming should be wary of the surging tide of anti-gun sentiment there.
“All of these policies are ripe for somebody in Wyoming to pick up,” he told Cowboy State Daily. “And it might fail the first time or the second time. But somebody can say, ‘Well, they passed it in Colorado, or they passed it in Oregon, or they passed it in New Mexico, maybe it will work for Wyoming too.’”
What’s Happening Here
In Wyoming, state lawmakers are fresh off their 2023 legislative session, which included some gun-related bills.
One of the most hotly contested was House Bill 105, which failed in the Wyoming House. That measure would have eliminated “gun-free zones” in places such as the state capitol building, K-12 school ground and the University of Wyoming campus.
During committee debate over the bill, Sen. Bo Biteman, R-Ranchester, said that an earlier disturbance in the Senate Chamber had made him wish he could have had his gun with him.
The Bill’s primary sponsor, Rep. Jeremy Haroldson, R-Wheatland, said he plans to introduce similar legislation during the next session, but will include language to address some concerns brought against it, such as requiring that people go through more training to get concealed carry permits.
Meanwhile, Senate File 148 was passed and signed by Gov. Mark Gordon.
It establishes a “preemptive clause,” meaning that municipalities cannot introduce any local gun regulations that contradict state law. That was meant to prevent what proponents called a “patchwork” of gun regulations, such as those in Colorado where cities and counties may implement their own gun regulations.
Senate File 116, which protects Wyoming-based firearms and firearms accessory manufacturers from being sued if people use their products for nefarious purposes, also passed and was signed into law.
Heated Debate, Personal Tragedy
The Colorado Legislature is debating a host of gun control measures, some of which include a mandatory waiting period for buying firearms, expanded “red-flag” laws and increasing the legal firearms buying age from 18 to 21.
Perhaps the most contentious gun bill for Colorado lawmakers to consider is a proposed “assault weapons” ban.
One of the most adamant advocates for the new measures is Sen. Tom Sullivan, D-Littleton, who has a deeply personal motive for wanting stricter gun laws.
His son, Alex, was celebrating his 27th birthday on July 20, 2012, when he was one of 12 people murdered in the Aurora theater mass shooting.
“Colorado has a long and tragic history of gun violence. It’s time for action,” Sullivan wrote in a recent Facebook post.
And indeed, there have been numerous high-profile mass shootings in Colorado, most recently in January at Club Q in Colorado Springs, which left five dead and 17 wounded.
Requests from Cowboy State Daily for comment from Sullivan hadn’t been answered as of Wednesday.
For his part, Soper set things aflame with a recent posting on Twitter.
“Come and take it! They’ll have to invade the West slope and murder us if they intend on us being defenseless!” he wrote. “We will NOT bow to tyrants and those who seek to disarm us need to prepare for civil war!”
The tweet has since been deleted.
“I did apologize for that later,” Soper said during a telephone interview.
However, he didn’t want to water down the core message he was trying to get across.
“It was definitely meant to show the passion of a rural Western Colorado Legislator,” Soper said. “I saw it (the proposed assault weapons ban) affecting me, personally, outlawing things that I own and that many of my constituents own.”
He thinks the definition of an “assault weapon,” according to the bill, is too broad and vague and could end up including “somebody’s hunting rifle,” he said.
Soper added that the confrontational nature of the tweet was out of character.
“I’m normally known for being somebody who is easy to work with,” he said. “I work across the aisle. I won’t compromise my values, but I’m willing to listen.”
The tweet might also have had some positive effects, he said.
“I think that started to change the internal conversations,” he said, and out of the proposed restrictions, the pro-gun side has the best chance of defeating the assault weapons ban.
Rural Vs. Metro
Explosive population growth in Colorado, particularly in the Front Range metroplex, has shifted the state more toward a big-city mentality, Sober said. That can be particularly telling when it comes to gun policy.
Rural residents see guns in practical terms as tools for hunting, defending their homes or protection against large wild predators, Sober said.
Colorado also has a “robust hunting culture” and a “world-class” sport shooting complex in his district that contribute greatly to the state’s tourism industry.
“After skiing, hunting is the largest part of our tourism economy,” Sober said.
However, with a population ever-more heavily skewed toward the cities and Democrats having a two-thirds majority in the Legislature, strict gun control could prevail there, he said.
“You have those who live in the city and who just don’t see the need for a gun. And the bigger the gun, the less need they see for it,” he said.
That same effect of a larger, more urban population could radiate across the region, he said. Colorado is on track to have a larger population than all of the other Rock Mountain West states combined, which could give it outsized influence when it comes to matters like gun control.
“I think there could be a bleed-over effect. States tend to emulate each other within a region,” he said.