DENVER — Two Democratic state lawmakers who backed tighter gun laws in the aftermath of mass shootings have been kicked out of office in a recall election promoted by both grassroots activists and the National Rifle Association.
Senate President John Morse lost by just 343 votes Tuesday in a swing district in the Republican stronghold of Colorado Springs but Sen. Angela Giron lost by a bigger margin in a largely blue-collar district that favors Democrats.
The NRA said the election sent a clear message to lawmakers that they should protect gun rights and be accountable to their constituents, not to "anti-gun billionaires" — a swipe against New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who supported Giron and Morse.
Democrats will still maintain control of the state Legislature and the laws are expected to remain in place.
"The loss of this senate seat is purely symbolic," Morse said.
Angered by new limits on ammunition magazines and expanded background checks, gun-rights activists tried to recall a total of four lawmakers but only succeeded in launching efforts against Morse and Giron. It was the first for state legislators since Colorado adopted the procedure in 1912.
The recalls were seen as the latest chapter in the national debate over gun rights — and, for some, a warning to lawmakers in swing states who might contemplate gun restrictions in the future. But the vote also exposed divisions between the growing urban and suburban areas and more rural areas in a state where support for guns hasn't really been a partisan issue. Dozens of elected county sheriffs have sued to block the gun laws and some activists are promoting a largely symbolic measure to secede from the state.
The gun control debate was one of the most emotionally charged of Colorado's legislative session this year. President Barack Obama added to the attention on the Colorado Statehouse as his administration unsuccessfully pushed Congress to enact similar gun controls.
The debate was prodded by the mass shootings at an Aurora movie theater in July 2012 and at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., in December. The new gun laws were major victories for Colorado Democrats, who rallied majorities in the House and Senate this spring to pass them without Republican support.
Both legislators voted for 15-round limits on ammunition magazines and for expanded background checks on private gun sales after the 2012 mass shootings in Aurora and Newtown, Conn. The legislation was signed into law by Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper.
Reported contributions to Morse and Giron totaled about $3 million, dwarfing the amount raised by gun activists who petitioned for the recall, though some independent groups didn't have to report spending. Both the NRA and Bloomberg contributed more than $300,000 to the pro- and anti-recall campaigns.
Hickenlooper initially rejected calls for stronger gun control laws after 12 people were killed and 70 injured in an Aurora movie theater in July 2012. The governor changed his mind right before the December 2012 Newtown massacre, in which a gunman killed 20 children and six women at Sandy Hook Elementary School.
Hickenlooper, who is up for re-election in 2014, kept a low profile in the recalls. A recent statewide poll by Quinnipiac University suggested that 52 percent of voters disapproved of his gun policy while only 35 percent approved.
"This should serve as a warning that the Democrats in the Legislature must be more balanced in the upcoming session. Governor Hickenlooper should also realize that his inability to control the Legislature could be very costly," said state senator and GOP gubernatorial hopeful Greg Brophy.
Morse, a former police chief in a Colorado Springs suburb, was first elected to the Senate in 2006. He will be replaced by Republican Bernie Herpin. Giron will be replaced by former Pueblo police officer George Rivera.