Colorado State of Mind, Josh Penry, August 3, 2012

Station:      Rocky Mountain PBS, KRMA-TV, Channel 6

Show:        Colorado State of Mind

Guests:      Penry, Ritter, Romanoff


Date:         August 3, 2012

Topics:      Gun Laws, Gun Control, Gun Safety, Gun Restrictions, Mental Illness, Mental Health, Brain Disease and Defects, Columbine, Platte Canyon High School, Aurora Theater Shooting, Bill Ritter, Bill Owens, Andrew Romanoff, Bipartisanship, NRA Scorecard, Gun Lobby, False Choice, Polarizing Issues, Assault Weapon Ban, Gun Show Loophole

Click Here for Audio

Click Here for Video:  Part 1

Click Here for Video:  Part 2

Click Here for Video:  Part 3


HOST, PRESIDENT & CEO OF ROCKY MOUNTAIN PBS DOUG PRICE:  Two weeks after the deadly shooting incident, survivors in Aurora are still dealing with the aftermath in their lives. Others are in the process of analyzing how this can still happen and whether it can be prevented in the future. Initial reactions were reflexive, relying on past beliefs and understanding. To honor the survivors, we believe that it is time to be open-minded and reflective instead. In that spirit, we want to begin a conversation on what, if anything, should be done and how. It’s clear that political division marks any discussion of policy on gun control and mental health in our society. It’s also hard to ignore comparisons to other countries [Graph showing deaths by guns in various countries] and see the United States has a far greater rate of deaths from gun violence then the other 22 so-called rich nations of the world, more than three times higher than the UK Australia or Canada –our closest cultural comparisons.  In the most recent year of full data, 2009, more than 31,000 people died in this country due to firearms injury. That’s about equal to the number of traffic fatalities every year in the US. Tonight we’ll talk about it, was a group of former lawmakers from Colorado. I’m Doug Price and this is Colorado quarterly for August 2012.

[Introduction graphics]

PRICE:  Good evening. Tonight we welcome former Colorado Gov. Bill Ritter, a former Republican Senate Minority Leader Josh Penry, and former Democratic Speaker of the House Andrew Romanoff. Josh, let’s start with you. What is your response to the political leadership’s activity since the shooting in Aurora?

FORMER REPRESENTATIVE JOSH PENRY:    You know, at the outset I think Gov. Hickenlooper has handled himself very well. As you noted in your introductory comments, I think a lot of people went to their entrenched positions and try to leverage the situation to suit their political arguments. And I think, in stepping back from it, and just articulating the breadth and scope of the tragedy–and in cautioning against overly politicizing many of these choices and discussions, I think he did a great service to himself but also to the dialogue around it. So I think his steady hand certainly played out. And I think most people, when they see, you know, politicians hop up on their TV screen and advocate for this or against that, they sort of recoil. The sentiment is that this is a terrible tragedy, a terrible situation, and once the grieving ends, then those policy conversations can commence.

PRICE:  There does come a time to act and think about what you are going to do to respond to the constituents on both sides of any particular argument. Gov. Ritter, as Denver DA you have the largest policy role in response to Columbine. Can you walk us through what happened then, and the things you thought were positive and negative about that time?

FORMER COLORADO GOVERNOR JOHN RITTER:  Well, I … There were of a bunch of people who came together and looked at the gun issue and a variety of things were done–one was done by the voters of this state, I think it was amendment 22.  [It was] a pretty overwhelming response by the voters when they closed the so-called gun show loophole. There were some other things done legislatively. Strawman purchasing was made illegal. So, there were a variety of things, but other things that had to do with schools and, you know, and with protecting schools, trying to figure out how to, what we call “harden the target” and also inside schools, to really look at the polling. There were programs that were out of the attorney general’s office, Ken Salazar’s office, that were supported by Gov. Owens, that were about schools and weren’t legislative but were really about building up programs that address a variety of issues that didn’t have anything to do with guns, quite frankly.

PRICE:  Tom Mauser, who  was the parent of a Columbine victim, talked about the leadership of Bill Owens and Ken Salazar, together.  Are there lessons to be learned there?

RITTER:  First of all, it was bipartisan, so that was healthy. I think in these kinds of things, it’s important that we don’t gravitate to the one thing, and I think we did a pretty good job of that after Columbine. People believing, “well, this is about gun control, or the lack of, you know, gun regulation. Other people saying, “this is only about mental health and about red flags”, or “this is about police response or EMT response”. In fact, it’s about all of those things or a combination of those, and it may be a lot more of one thing then it is of another. But policy conversations that are about just one thing often missed the point, particularly if we are addressing an incident that just happened and trying, in a sense, to say, “if this thing we need to address,” you can miss a lot of other really important things. This Aurora shooting is no different than that. There will be a lot of lessons learned. It’s important for people to think about this as broadly as possible and say, “what are all the things that as part of being, you know, an American society, what are the things that we can glean from this and that we can do to address this in hopes of preventing another one, but if not preventing them, I don’t know, making them more difficult. And again, it’s important for policymakers to do it in a bipartisan fashion and say, “it’s not a single thing.”

PRICE:  In the preamble to the show today, we talked a little bit about the prevalence of gun violence in the United States–22 times more likely to occur than in comparable countries that are nearest to us. But in these incidents, there always seems to be a confluence of both the gun laws and mental health. You have recently, Andrew, been the Speaker of the House. Give us a sense of, in a time not of crisis but in a general electoral cycle, what pressures you are feeling with respect to mental health? What pressures were you feeling with respect to gun control?

FORMER DEMOCRAT SPEAKER OF THE HOUSE ANDREW ROMANOFF: well, if you’re suffering from mental illness and you can’t get treatment, or a loved one is, it is a time of crisis – It is always a time of crisis in that sense. My take is Colorado has not done a particularly good job of making it possible for people who are suffering with mental illness to get the care they need. Outside of this incident, the truth is we ought to be doing everything we possibly can to make sure that folks who suffer from brain disease get the care they need to avoid hurting themselves or other people.  I think the responsibility, as Gov. Ritter was suggesting, as a policy maker, at a time of crisis or not, is to evaluate the concerns of your constituents and, when I was in the legislature, Josh and I spent a lot of time working on these issues, to ask advocates a couple questions.  Tell us what is the evidence of a problem, and pretty clearly, there are no shortage of those in this state or any other. And then tell us why a change in state law, if that’s what you’re proposing, the best solution, as opposed perhaps, to better enforcement of existing laws, a change in local or federal law, or for that matter, action in the private sector, outside the sphere of law.

PRICE:  Josh, while it might not be fair, given the fact that you represent Republican leadership, there is an expectation of the public to what your viewpoint might be on guns and gun control. As a  legislator –and in some ways the minority leader gets to play offense more than defenses, did you get a sense of a desire to have things happen in that arena, or was it relatively quiet?

PENRY:   Well, during my time of service the Columbine debates about gun control had sort of, had come and gone, and laws from the books. There was less discussion about it. But I think, generally, and now you see it here.  The public is highly skeptical of this notion that with the stroke of the pen or enactment of a new law or statute, that government—that the state legislature or federal, ah the United States Congress can come in and solve these situations. I think that Gov. Ritter is exactly right. These are complex circumstances with complicated fact patterns that give rise to a host of situations.  And again, to go back to something that Gov. Hickenlooper said in the immediate aftermath, we also have to acknowledge that sometimes, in free and open societies consisting of 300 million people, that horrible unacceptable, tragic but isolated situations happen, and we have to be slow to sort of swing the whipsaw of government action too quickly, in recognition of the fact that in many instances these are isolated situations that free societies have a hard time accounting for.

RITTER:  Having said that, I do think, while you have to view it broadly, we had a variety… I was part of the debates around gun laws after Columbine. There are a variety of measures that had been passed, that were going to be signed at the NRA convention 10 days after Columbine, those were withdrawn, really by the gun lobby and the sponsors. But most of them had become law within a couple years. Now, there was a state law that preempted municipalities from doing anything more restrictive. So you couldn’t pass something that was already in place at the state level. An assault weapons ban in Denver went away. It had been found constitutional by the Colorado Springs Court and it’s an example—I –.  See, Josh, I agree with you, it can’t happen with the stroke of a pen end this debate gets into this series of false choices that you are either going to solve it or not by doing it or not doing it, and the question is, “Is it’s an appropriate public policy that might actually make it more difficult?  Are mental health background checks something that would [make us] be better off? When I was governor, I had a person shot and killed outside the governor’s office who was definitely a mental health — he was suffering from a mental disease. He was denied the purchase of a firearm in Fort Collins, but he bought one either that day or a day later in Arvada. And there was no background test on mental health. So, should we haveat least this discussion and not pretend we are going to prevent for all time another overshooting, but is it an appropriate public policy choice to look at this intersection between mental health and firearms and say, “Can we do more or do it better?”

PRICE:  Let me take a … add to that a little.  Jordan Marsh who is the grandmother of Sandra Marsh,  who works in our development department, was in theater nine the day of the shooting. And I asked her for some thoughts about it. And I thought she had a great take. I mean, Josh, it’s not so unlike what you say. She says, ” I believe some people have guns in their homes for protection.  I don’t think there should be any new laws passed that would take their feelings of safety in their own homes away. I do believe that there should be gun restrictions, meaning that there should be certain guns that absolutely no one should be able to get a hold of except the people in the Army who are trained to use them. I believe that all strictly military weapons should be kept that way. Josh, are there lines?   Are there places … we’ve seen Antonin Scalia for example, talk about, “Well, maybe there are lines.”  As you think about this, as we all think about this together, where are the lines, if any, at this point – in terms of gun control?

PENRY:  Well, the state and federal statute books are full of lines — hundreds and probably thousands of gun laws  That articulate lines. And it’s important to recognize that probably hundreds and thousands of those laws were broken. And that’s where the discussion about the efficacy of gun laws comes in. Will they work? The governor’s point is a fair one. But if you look at Norway, some of the most restrictive gun laws in the free world and the massacre happened there. Virginia Tech, a few years back, a gun-free zone, and yet a massacre took place there. Even in the theater that night, there was actually an out and out prohibition on guns on the premises imposed at the corporate level. And so, I think what the public expects of their leaders is a thoughtful discussion. And part of that thoughtful discussion is to recognize that there are limitations to how far these controls can go in actually preventing incidents like these

ROMANOFF:  It’s very difficult to have a thoughtful discussion, I’d suggest, at this time while so many families are angry and grieving.  There is no good time to have this discussion, in some ways.  And I think the governor was right to suggest, in some ways, the challenge for policymakers is not to ask what would have prevented this particular tragedy, because the answer to that question, as agonizing and as heartbreaking as it may be, the answer may be, “nothing”. Nothing might have stopped this monster from doing what he did. But that does not forgive us of the responsibility to ask all sorts of tough questions as policymakers every day.

PRICE:  I think one of the things… and again, just top provide balance and a reflection on it, that’s somebody like Bill O’Reilly… Again, Jordan was in the theater with Jerrell Sangster, her boyfriend, and he said that he was worried about the idea of the cost bullets, of the clip size, of the control of them. I think what was befuddling, and I saw Bill O’Reilly talk about this, is that how could someone of mental instability accumulate an arsenal of 6000 pieces of ammunition in such a short period of time.  And I’m trying to — Bill, maybe you could talk a little bit about what should happen between the confluence of mental health and gun laws?

RITTER:  I think that –and again, you can do more and it may not prevent this but it may at least make it more difficult.  First of all, Internet sales are a bit troubling, that you can do things and do them anonymously.  You know, people — federally licensed arms dealers can actually turn down a person who comes in and presents with a mental health disease or defect and yet you can’t do that over the Internet. There is no database that says these are the people who should be restricted from Internet purchases and certainly not a database and there’s a very limited number of questions as a federally licensed firearms dealer about the mental health background of a person.  Only whether or not you’ve been adjudicated, meaning a judge has found you to be diseased or defective, and not about whether you are under care or you have been hospitalized, whether you have had a recent diagnosis and those things. And so, there should probably be some discussion about that, and how you would do background checks differently.  We fought this fight on concealed weapons and lost in Colorado. We find it on firearm purchases and lost. So there is very, very little about that both in Internet sales and in-person purchases, just a very few things you can ask about mental health really don’t get to whether or not we are selling firearms and ammunition to people who, just as a policy matter, we should agree, should not have them.

PRICE:  What troubles me, I think, at times, is just the percentages. I think Colorado has been victimized as much—If Mother Jones is correct, you’ve had 56 mass shootings in the last 30 years, and if population were right, you would expect zero or one in Colorado, and we’ve had four. Is it something about the mental health system? About 80% of the time – Josh, we’ll ask you a little bit about it, is it something about the mental health funding, the mental health system, the geographic culture, — what do you think attributes to that higher number? Or is it just random?

PENRY:  Well, it’s hard to finger of the mental health systems in this case, because according to various media reports, this person was actually seeing a state funded psychiatrist. And there are lots of details that will emerge in the coming weeks and months in respect.  But this is a person who had access to those systems. What does it mean? All of these conversations, whether we like it or not, are coming up as an upshot or a consequence of this tragedy, and I think the public is rightly slow to cede freedoms because of the situation like this where there’s no fundamental proof that it would lessen the likelihood that they would happen.

ROMANOFF:   Just to add to this, there are all sorts of good reasons, it seems to me, to increase support for mental health funding and a terrific number of advocates who have been making this case every day. The governor’s wife and our former First Lady Jeannie Ritter is one of those advocates. So, it seems to me, while we’re having this conversation at this time for this reason, we ought not to shortchange the work that still needs to go on in the state.

RITTER:  And you don’t need to cede a lot of freedoms to make it about mental health. You know, Josh, that middle school shooting that happened out in the Southwest Metro area, I remember the person in that shooting  — and nobody died but there were a variety of kids in that school that were traumatized and some were injured.  And the father said, “I can’t get him treatment!”  And if you remember that worry.  He said, “I can’t get him into treatment.”  Now if you remember that case, we didn’t pay much attention to that case when it went to trial.  I think three separate psychiatrists said he was insane. There was a fourth that said he found him sane. It went to trial, the jury found him insane. He’s in a mental hospital now.  It was a mass shooting. It was at a school, but because nobody died we paid less attention to it as a consequence. But I can remember the father’s plea for help as, again, we shouldn’t make it about anyone case, but making me think, “What did the system do that we couldn’t actually get that guy into treatment and instead, he found his way into a middle school with weapons that he fired off.

PRICE:  We discussed this. I had a family member who had a brain injury and we went through a series of episodes where the maximum the family could get was a 72 hour or a series of 72 hour holds.  And at the end of the day this person, my sibling was released to his own devices. That to me is an indicator that families who want to intervene in the lives of family members — there is a freedom issue, I think, Josh, or Andrew, that the rights of somebody who has a mental illness to run their own life collides with the desire of the society and the family to create an opportunity to help them. So, have you seen that? How do you deal with that?

ROMANOFF:  Sure.  I think you’re right. You have to comport the public policy interests that are at stake within the confines of the Constitution. I want to say this, though. The conversation that we’re having now is the right kind of policy conversation for citizens and their elected officials to make. What happens too often in politics, I think instead, is an attempt by both sides to demonize the other, to denigrate their patriotism, to proclaim the opposition not just wrong but un-American.  You see it on the left when folks characterize General Petraeus as “Betray Us”.  And you see it now from the right when folks question the legitimacy of the president of the United States.  That makes it very difficult to have thoughtful policy conversations in this country.

RITTER: and these conversations about guns and gun restrictions, gun control — whatever you want to call it, is one of the most polarizing.  It’s ah, you know, when you’re running for office, you get a score from the NRA, and I mean a score, like a grade – an “F”, in my case.  And, you know, I mean, I’m a gun owner, I have hunted since I was in third grade, I still hunted as an adult, and it wasn’t so much what I thought about guns as how I have testified before with respect to specific measures. But it’s less about a conversation where three people like us can sit down and say, “okay. Is there some new avenue we can think about here that would make it more difficult for these kinds of events to occur, or help us protect public safety without ceding much freedom?”  But instead it becomes about these false choices, even in the legislature where it’s about this or this. You are either for it or against it, and then you are going to be graded on it and you are going to have to answer to that in campaign mode. And the gun lobby in the state is pretty powerful. It is in this country.

PENRY:    But that’s because—it’s not just —  I think that is an over – to blame the gun lobby is an over-simple analysis. The reality is is that guns are and have been a part of our culture and some people in some places– the elites in our society treat that as a bad thing. But it is reality. I mean, you look at people like John Salazar, Sal Pace who is running for Congress over in the third Congressional District representing a rural part of the state of Colorado, they are very slow – – they get A’s from the NRA, like I did, because they appreciate and respect the fact that guns have a role in our society and in our culture.  And an entire state—it’s important, for example [inaudible] Ed Perlmutter or Diana Degette, they were quick to get in front of the cameras, and in ways that, for me personally were pretty offensive. They—um, all the levers of power were in their hands for a number of years and we never heard anything about that. And so I think that’s why the public is sort of cynical about these new calls in the wake of this new tragedy. If these were so necessary, why then were they acted on them, and why are we sort of leveraging this controversy now for that end.

PRICE:  I think that’s a good place to go, in terms of the policy conversation. You say guns are and have been a part of the society. But cars are and have been a part of the society, for a long time.  Yet, we study cars. We spend hundreds of millions of dollars a year to understand how to make them more safe, that we’ve dropped the fatality rate in automobiles dramatically. But today in America, how much money are we spending to ask about how to make gun control and gun safety bigger when 32,000 fatalities a year in car accidents, 31,000 fatalities a year from gun violence. Should we have a conversation that lets us see differently the impact of gun laws? Or is it that the NRA is so passionate about what they do, and it’s a freedom issue how do you start to parse that argument? Because we do study other things that have damage to us, but we don’t, in my view, in what I could research for today, have a lot of study about how to diminish gun deaths.

ROMANOFF:   I’d say, one: we ought to be respectful of the families who are grieving.  Two:  we ought to have tough conversations about complex public policy issues every day. When I heard Congressman Perlmutter say was no different from what he had said, frankly, from his time in office. I heard him say on this occasion, that he was feeling, as we all are, grief stricken and angry and he recognized that emotions are raw. I don’t know that his policy stance changed on account of the tragedy that unfolded in his district.

RITTER:  Yeah. And I think, you know, moderators of conversations will go right to the issue of gun control as a way to talk about this. I saw it happen on the left and the right, though, ask questions, and it gets us into this place of what I call the false choice. So, Josh, I understand the you can get different grades, and I probably got my grade because I was a big-city DA and because I was in arguing for what I thought were reasonable gun restrictions for the city and County of Denver, and not to have those go away because at the state level they wanted to do something other than give us local control. And they have their right to grade you out on that but the fact of the matter is, I felt– I feel there is too little reasonable conversation here, like you don’t have the ability to say, “Let’s sit down and think about this in a whole new fashion.  And not just because of the Aurora shooting or Columbine or the shooting that happened in Bailey – Platte Canyon High School, or the shooting at the middle school.  You know, the things that we’ve experienced, but because of the country we are in this different place. We are 300 million guns on the streets of America or in homes in America. We still have the Second Amendment. We believe in it. But we need to have this other conversation because of the Internet, and because of Internet sales, because of the anonymity with which you can purchase guns and not ever has to appear in front of somebody, where they might see, really, physically that they might suffer from some kind of mental disease or defect. And that’s all I’m asking:  is that we have a rational conversation where we don’t get caught up in the polarizing effect of interest groups, and not just the NRA, but interest groups on both sides.

[Discussion concludes with comments about the positive aspects which resulted from the Aurora shooting tragedy, acknowledging the selfless, heroic actions of some of the moviegoers in theater number 9 that night, and commemoration of the victims.  There was also acknowledgement of the trauma experienced by the Aurora, metro area, Colorado and national communities and the responsibility of elected officials to support them in their grief and recovery, while looking for solutions to prevent such a tragedy from repeating.]