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Nearly 3 years after deadly Colorado theater shooting, intensity of gun debate has lessened

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DENVER — When a gunman opened fire inside a packed movie theater in July 2012, killing 12 and injuring 70, it did more than spread fear and heartbreak across the Denver suburbs. It helped revive the national debate over gun control.

That argument gained intensity in the state five months later when a gunman killed 20 children and 6 adults at Newtown Elementary School in Connecticut.

Democrats in the state legislature in 2013 muscled through new laws requiring universal background checks and banning magazines that hold more than 15 rounds.

Gun control advocates boasted that they had found the formula to enact their policies in a libertarian swing state. Then furious gun rights supporters recalled two state senators who supported the measures.

But, as the trial of theater shooter James Holmes is scheduled to begin Monday, Colorado's gun debate has quieted down.

"It's in a sort of gridlock," said nonpartisan Denver pollster Floyd Ciruli. "The violence issue we're playing out right now is the Ferguson issue (of police shootings). You see nothing coming out in terms of gun control."

Part of the reason is that the two sides have essentially fought to a draw.

Though gun rights groups were successful in the recalls, the pro-gun state senators were voted out in the regular elections last year. And, despite big GOP victories, Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper won re-election despite signing the gun control laws.

Guns were rarely discussed in a campaign where Republicans attacked Democrats on the economy and President Barack Obama's health care plan.

This year Republicans tried to roll back the new gun laws but failed because they only control one of the two state legislative houses.

The gun debate is also shifting westward, away from Colorado.

Former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg has vowed to keep the issue alive by spending $50 million to push gun control. Last year his group Everytown for Gun Safety won a ballot fight in Washington state to establish universal background checks.

This year, Oregon's Democrat-dominated legislature is on the verge of approving universal background checks, although, in a Colorado replay, some legislators have been threatened with recalls.

PHOTO: FILE - In this March 4, 2013 file photo, opponents of proposed gun control bills being considered by the Colorado Legislature hold signs to those passing in cars, including an antique hot rod vehicle decorated with words from the U.S. Constitution, in front of the State Capitol, in Denver. When a gunman opened fire inside a packed movie theater in July of 2012, killing 12, it helped revive the national debate over gun control. But, as the trial of theater shooter James Holmes is scheduled to begin Monday, April 27, 2015, Colorado’s gun debate has quieted down. “It’s in a sort of gridlock,” said nonpartisan Denver pollster Floyd Ciruli. (AP Photo/Brennan Linsley, file)
FILE - In this March 4, 2013 file photo, opponents of proposed gun control bills being considered by the Colorado Legislature hold signs to those passing in cars, including an antique hot rod vehicle decorated with words from the U.S. Constitution, in front of the State Capitol, in Denver. When a gunman opened fire inside a packed movie theater in July of 2012, killing 12, it helped revive the national debate over gun control. But, as the trial of theater shooter James Holmes is scheduled to begin Monday, April 27, 2015, Colorado’s gun debate has quieted down. “It’s in a sort of gridlock,” said nonpartisan Denver pollster Floyd Ciruli. (AP Photo/Brennan Linsley, file)

A universal background check ballot measure is scheduled in Nevada next year, which will make it the next western swing state to test the volatile politics of gun control.

John Feinblatt, president of Everytown, contended that his side still has momentum on the issue. He said six states, including Colorado, have adopted universal background checks since Newtown.

"This would have been unimaginable a few years ago," Feinblatt said. "I think we are actually winning."

There have been plenty of high-profile failures for gun control advocates, however.

A federal universal background bill couldn't muster the 60 votes necessary in a Democrat-controlled U.S. Senate even in the months after Newtown.

And though new gun restrictions have passed in a few states that aren't reliably liberal — Feinblatt pointed to a bill signed last year by Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker to take guns from people with restraining orders — expanding Republican control over state legislatures has led to a flurry of legislation weakening gun laws.

For example, Walker, a contender for the Republican presidential nomination, has indicated that he'll sign legislation ending his state's two-day waiting period on handgun purchases, which would be at least his third expansion of gun rights since his 2010 election.

The National Rifle Association tallied 35 bills expanding gun rights that have been signed into law nationwide this year. No legislation the NRA has opposed has become law.

Dudley Brown, head of the National Association for Gun Rights, who is based in Colorado, said he thinks gun control advocates have notched mostly incremental wins. "They seem to be able to pick up an occasional small victory in purple to blue states," Brown said. "If you define those as victories you've got a very low bar."

Brown said there is still great energy among activists to roll back Colorado's restrictions. But John Morse, one of the two Democratic state senators ousted in the 2013 recall, doubts that will happen.

"There's a lot of folks looking around and saying 'wait a minute, the sky didn't fall,'" Morse said. "The more time goes under the bridge, the more these laws will stick."

Laura Carno, an activist involved in Morse's recall, isn't sure. She noted a Pew poll from December that showed, for the first time in 20 years, support for gun rights exceeds backing for gun control. But she agreed that the furor in Colorado has died down.

The questions Carno gets at gun gatherings nowadays — including at the National Rifle Association conference in Tennessee earlier this month — no longer revolve around her state's gun politics.

"The question I get is: 'Oh, you're from Colorado — didn't you guys legalize marijuana?'"

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