DENVER — A law expanding background check requirements on Colorado gun sales has been in effect for about a year, and an Associated Press analysis of state data compiled during that span shows the projected impact was vastly overstated in a key budget report.
The discovery has prompted a prominent Democratic lawmaker to question whether the flawed estimate led to an inaccurate projection of the law’s cost. Republicans seized on the opportunity to resume criticism over a measure that helped lead to the ouster of three Democrats in the state Senate last year.
Democrats pushed the proposal into law last year as part of a package of gun restrictions meant to improve safety after high-profile mass shootings. As part of related legislation, users would be required to pay a fee when they submit their background check application, and those funds would be used to support the program.
Lawmakers drafting the background check requirement, aimed at keeping firearms away from those with a criminal history, relied on information from a non-partisan research arm of the Legislature that predicted about 420,000 new reviews over the first two years. Accordingly, the research analysts estimated that the agency that conducts the checks needed an extra $3 million from the user fees to handle the anticipated surge of work.
But after a year of operating under the new system, Colorado Bureau of Investigations officials have performed only about 13,600 reviews considered a result of the new law — about 7 percent of the estimated first year total.
“I’m not discouraged by the lower number,” said Democratic Rep. Rhonda Fields, who sponsored the legislation in response to the Aurora movie theater rampage that killed 12 and wounded dozens of others in her district and the elementary school massacre in Newtown, Connecticut, that left 28 people dead, including 20 first-graders.
“I think that it’s a good number, because it shows me that people are complying with the law,” she said.
Still, Fields acknowledged, “I’m going to be asking some questions because I want to be a good steward of our tax dollars.”
The mass shootings prompted a swell of firearm sales as people became nervous that new gun restrictions would become law, contributing to a backlog of required background checks. Recognizing the trend and anticipating a huge spike in required reviews, lawmakers decided to shift the cost of the checks to gun buyers.
For Republicans, the new law provides evidence that a plan they opposed from the start was an unnecessary attack on the rights of gun owners and bolsters the conservative efforts that recalled two Democratic state senators and prompted a third to resign.
“Nothing good came of the passage of the law, except we found out just how anti-gun Democrats in Colorado are,” said GOP state Sen. Greg Brophy.
The funding increase, CBI officials say, has gone to hiring and operating expenses. Spokeswoman Susan Medina told the AP that about a dozen full-time employee positions have been filled since the increase, but that “the full authorized staff was not implemented.”
Medina says the agency was authorized to add about 14 more full-time employee positions that have gone unfilled.
The 420,000 estimate was provided by a standard Colorado Legislative Council review. The council regularly assesses costs or other impacts of legislation. Officials with the panel aren’t allowed to speak publicly but provided AP with an explanation of how they reached the figure.
Gun-control advocates have long asserted that 40 percent of gun sales nationwide are made by private sellers and thus not subject to background checks. President Barack Obama cited the number last year, unsuccessfully urging Congress to pass a law mandating “universal background checks.”
But that figure, which Colorado legislative analysts and CBI officials say was the best available for the basis of their estimation calculus, comes from a 1997 National Institute of Justice report that gun-right’s activists criticize as inaccurate.
Catherine Mortensen, a spokeswoman for the National Rifle Association, said that using the 40 percent figure as a basis for Colorado’s projection “calls into question lawmakers’ access to accurate information on not only this, but all firearms-related legislation.”
In total, there were about 311,000 background checks done during the first year of the expansion in Colorado, meaning the 13,600 checks between private sellers made up about 4 percent of the state total.
Further, the private review figure includes the number of checks done at gun shows, which have been required for years in Colorado. The law also requires checks for online sales, which is new for transactions within Colorado. But such vetting was already required on interstate sales. Still, interstate activity is tallied in the private background check total.
Taken together, this indicates that the number of newly mandated background checks that have been performed is even lower than 13,600.
Of the 13,600, there were 260 denials the first year under the expanded system. But because of how state data is compiled, however, it’s unclear how many of those denials are tied to the new law, and how many happened under existing rules such as the gun-show requirement.
Still, Brian Malte, senior national policy director for the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, said his group applauds Colorado for passing the law.
“The bottom line,” he said, “is even if one, or five, or 10, or 10,000 or 20,000 people are being blocked, that’s less dangerous people walking around with guns.”
“The bottom line is even if one, or five, or 10, or 10,000 or 20,000 people are being blocked, that’s less dangerous people walking around with guns.”
senior national policy director for the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence