Observations about the Colorado Gun Magazine Spat

Dudley Brown
Dudley Brown

If you’re a gun-rights activist, is it better to have a law that restricts gun magazines to fifteen rounds or to thirty rounds? The answer might seem obvious: Laws that violate rights less are less-bad than laws that violate rights more. So of course Rocky Mountain Gun Owners opposed a recent attempt to ease Colorado’s magazine restrictions from fifteen to thirty rounds—waging a nasty smear campaign along the way.

In 2013, House Bill 1224 banned “the transfer of gun magazines holding more than 15 rounds,” as I reviewed that year.

This year, various Colorado Republican legislators attempted to repeal the magazine restrictions. An April 15 email from the National Rifle Association summarizes: “SB [Senate Bill] 175, introduced by state Senators Chris Holbert (R-30) and John Cooke (R-13), would have repealed [the] anti-gun piece of legislation passed into law during the 2013 legislative session that arbitrarily limits the number of rounds of ammunition you can use to protect yourself and your family to 15.” (People can keep the larger magazines they already own but not legally acquire new ones in the state.) A house committee killed that bill on April 15.

No serious person actually thought the Democrat-controlled state house would repeal the magazine restrictions; the purpose of the legislation was to keep up awareness of the issue.

However, there was an outside chance that Democrats might support a measure to ease the magazine restrictions from fifteen to thirty rounds; apparently Democrat Joe Salazar indicated he would. [April 20 Update: Salazar suggested this in a video with Revealing Politics.] The idea was for some legislator to run a late bill on the matter. Jon Caldara and Dave Kopel, president and research director (respectively) for the Independence Institute (II), supported that proposal. Dudley Brown and his Rocky Mountain Gun Owners (RMGO) opposed it. The proposal seems to be dead at this point.

I don’t think there was much chance of such a measure passing. (I contacted Salazar via email and voice mail to ask him about the proposal, but I haven’t heard back from him.) However, it was perfectly reasonable for gun-rights activists to pursue such a proposal. But RMGO doesn’t do reasonable. It does smear.

On April 13, RMGO published a Facebook post calling the thirty-round proposal the “Kopel Kompromise.” The post continued, “Does Michael Bloomberg have a sleeper cell in Colorado? All of a sudden David Kopel is fighting as hard as he can to save the Magazine Ban by gutting SB15-175, the repeal bill. Maybe its because he’s a ‘lifelong registered Democrat’ and a ‘Ralph Nader’ voter.”

Kopel is one of the most important Second Amendment scholars in the world and an outspoken critic of Bloomberg’s gun-restriction proposals. RMGO’s insinuation that he’s somehow secretly and intentionally working to promote Bloomberg’s agenda is a slanderous lie.

It is also flatly untrue that Kopel wanted to “gut” bill 175; I’ll get to the pertinent details momentarily.

RMGO claims on Facebook (in a comment) that the II “started it”—because apparently you’re never too old for kindergarten. RMGO claims that posting the message about Kopel is “[o]nly returning the favor. Caldara (and by extension, Kopel) started it by claiming we were working with Bloomberg.” I doubt very seriously that Caldara publicly claimed that RMGO is “working with Bloomberg.” (It would be wrong and foolish to say such a thing.) Caldara has claimed, and rightly so, that RMGO is in effect furthering Bloomberg’s agenda by undercutting the effort to ease the restrictions from fifteen to thirty rounds. Regardless of what Caldara said about RMGO, RMGO was quite wrong to smear Kopel.

RMGO also stated in a Facebook post targeting Caldara: “Anti-gun State Rep. Joe Salazar is floating a so-called ‘compromise’ proposal that’ll virtually guarantee Bloomberg’s Magazine Ban will be PERMANENT and unrepealable. Worse, establishment lobbyists like Jon Caldara are backing it by attacking RMGO members and supporters. Please . . . urge lawmakers to oppose the Salazar-Caldara ‘Permanent Magazine Ban Amendment.’ Insist they pass SB15-175 without amendment and repeal the Mag Ban in its entirety.”

RMGO’s claims about the politics of the proposals are implausible, as I’ll explain later. (Notice that RMGO neglected to point out the nature of the “compromise” in question.) For now consider merely what the legislative proposal was.

I’ve communicated with Kopel and Caldara by email, and with Holbert by phone, and they agree that amending 175 was never on the table; the plan was for a late bill. Caldara states, “Dudley was trying to confuse the issue saying that we wanted to change SB-175, which couldn’t be changed that way even if we want to. We want the Senate Republicans to pass a change to the current mag ban from 15 to 30 in a brand new late bill. Dudley won’t allow his followers to vote for that. He and Bloomberg don’t want Coloradans to have 30 rounds mags.”

As Holbert told me by phone (and as he’s also said on Facebook), there never was a late bill to ease the magazine restrictions. He said, “It’s frustrating for me that people have been drawing lines and taking sides on something that wasn’t real.” He granted that a late bill was a theoretical possibility; however, he said he’s heard from leadership that they don’t want late bills. (It’s unclear whether Salazar would have seriously supported any magazine bill.) Interestingly, senate president Bill Cadman just introduced a late bill regarding fetal homicide, so evidently late bills are not totally off the table.

I asked Holbert if he would vote for easing the restrictions to 30 rounds, and he said no. It’s hard to see why anyone would run the bill, knowing that RMGO’s own favored legislators would torpedo it. So it seems to me that Holbert wants it both ways: He wants to say that voting on the proposal was never a real possibility, but he actively discouraged it from becoming a real possibility by declaring he’d oppose it.

Holbert echoed RMGO’s position, that a “compromise” measure would make it “all but impossible to repeal [the ban] if the numbers moved to thirty.”

That claim, that easing the restrictions now would make repealing them later impossible, is frankly silly. The only way the magazine restrictions will be repealed is if the Republicans recapture both sides of the legislature and probably the governor’s mansion as well. It’s not enough to pull some Democrats over from a Democrat-controlled body, because leadership can kill any bill it wants. If Republicans were to regain control of state government across the board—by the way, something that’s extremely unlikely into the foreseeable future—then it would be just as easy for Republicans to repeal a thirty-round law as a fifteen-round law. Indeed, in some ways it would be easier to repeal a thirty-round law, because the marginal change from that to an outright repeal would be less dramatic.

So, if your goal is to ultimately repeal the magazine ban, passing a marginal reform now would be the best move toward that goal. (If, on the other hand, your goal is to keep your members angry and writing checks, RMGO’s strategy may make more sense.)

[April 17 Update: Representative Justin Everett send me an email in which he states that, if easing the magazine restrictions to thirty rounds “was doable, then we would never get a full magazine ban repeal because there would be no political will to do so even on the Republican side. Trust me, I serve with these people.” I don’t buy it.]

The underlying substantive issue is whether any sort of political compromise or piecemeal reform is appropriate. The view expressed by Holbert and RMGO, that easing a rights-violating law is wrong because it makes repealing the law harder, is frankly insane, and no rational person would attempt to treat the principle as a universal. Not even Dudley Brown would attempt to do so.

Take the example of background-registration checks. In 2000 I worked with Brown to oppose Amendment 22, the measure (which passed) to extend registration checks to private sales at gun shows. In 2013, Colorado government passed House Bill 1229 to expand registration checks to almost all gun sales. Would Brown argue that it would be wrong to repeal Bill 1229 or Amendment 22, on the grounds that doing so would not totally repeal background-registration checks? Obviously not. Brown would do exactly what he blasts Kopel for trying to do: seek piecemeal reform.

Or consider the example of taxation. I think taxation is wrong and ultimately should be replaced by voluntary financing of government. But obviously I’m not going to torpedo any effort to marginally reduce tax rates and government spending, on the pretext that doing so would make taxes harder to repeal; that would be insane.

By Brown’s “logic,” voting for the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights was wrong because it still allowed increases in government spending.

By Brown’s “logic,” any effort to ease regulations on businesses should be opposed, so long as any regulations remain.

By Brown’s “logic,” Lincoln should be condemned for his Emancipation Proclamation on the grounds that it did not totally end slavery.

Brown’s position regarding magazine restrictions is essentially that he wants the law to be as rights-violating and damaging as possible, so that people are motivated to repeal it. By that “logic,” if the restrictions were set at five rounds, he’d oppose easing them to fifteen. If magazines were totally banned, he’d oppose legalizing any gun magazines if they were restricted in any way.

Usually I’m the first to quote Ayn Rand’s remarks about compromise, and I agree with them. But it is no compromise of principles to accept an incremental reform on the path to consistently good policy. To hold otherwise is to deny any possibility for incremental improvements.

I should mention that I know both Brown and Kopel personally; I’m probably the only person in the world to have worked (on contract and at different times) for both RMGO and the II. I first met Brown in 1998. I’ve always admired Brown’s talents as a political operative, and on a personal level I’ve generally found him to be an amiable guy. But in this case he’s sacrificed gun rights for the sake of smearing Kopel, whom he has long disliked. It would be pleasant if Brown would refrain from being a vindictive and hypocritical jerk. I won’t hold my breath.