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A Colorado city voted to ban ‘assault weapons’ — but numerous legal questions remain unanswered

The city of Boulder, Colorado, voted last week to ban assault weapons, but constitutional questions remain regarding the ordinance's legality in Colorado. (Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

The city council of Boulder, Colorado, voted last week to ban “assault weapons," adding it's name to the growing list of municipalities seeking to bar the firearms.

What happened?

The controversial city ordinance, which would also ban bump stocks and high-capacity magazines, passed unanimously on its first reading, according to the Denver Post.

As written, the ordinance would require any city resident with a firearm that falls under the provision to register it in a gun registry with the Boulder Police Department — where a fee will be assessed — or surrender it, according to the Complete Colorado.

The city council approved the ordinance after a five-hour meeting, according to the Post, where nearly 150 people signed up to speak against the proposal. In the end, 111 people spoke, but that wasn’t enough for the local leaders.

Councilwoman Jill Adler Grano, who proposed the ban, called the decision to ban assault weapons a “no-brainer” and rejected claims that it is a knee-jerk reaction to the massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, February.

"This is not a knee-jerk reaction. If it were a knee-jerk reaction, it would have come after the first mass shooting and there have been hundreds. I think it’s time to say ‘enough,'" she told the Post.

In comments to The Complete Colorado, Alder Grano added:

I don’t see this as taking away Second Amendment rights. The Second Amendment does not protect assault weapons. There have been hundreds and hundreds of mass shootings in America. This is a long overdue proposal. I think it’s time to say enough, not in the city of Boulder.

When will the ban take effect?

According to the Post, the bill will need to be passed after a second, and possible third, reading of the bill. It will then become a fully enforceable ordinance in the city of Boulder.

But what about legal concerns?

According to KUSA-TV, there are certain legal complications that could make the law's passage "harder than it looks."

A Colorado law passed in 2003 prevents municipalities in the Centennial State from enacting "an ordinance, regulation, or other law that prohibits the sale, purchase, or possession of a firearm that a person may lawfully sell, purchase, or possess under state or federal law."

Because of this, David Kopel, a constitutional law professor at the University of Denver, told the Boulder city council they should consult with Colorado Attorney General Cynthia Coffman before enacting and enforcing their ban. He said:

The city attorney’s point of view that any gun that doesn’t have a pistol grip but just has some kind of protrusion on the stock turns this into a very, very broad ban.

If two people own a gun and one is 5-foot-2 and the other is 6-foot-4 the stock can be adjusted so it’s a better fit for the user. It is hard to see how that does not violate the constitutional right to arms to say that a gun because it fits better becomes more unconstitutional, and I think the same can be said about many of the other features on the list.

Kopel, who has written more than a dozen books on the Second Amendment, also said banning high-capacity magazines retroactively criminalizes a large portion of Boulder residents.

"The criminalization of them with no grandfathering will turn a very large percentage of the population of Boulder into retroactive criminals, and people won’t register because they are afraid of confiscation," he said, according to the Complete Colorado.

Assault weapon disambiguation

By definition, assault weapons are different from assault rifles. Assault weapons are semi-automatic firearms with purely cosmetic features, such as pistol grips, adjustable stocks, flash suppressors, bayonet mounds, and high-capacity magazines, that put them in a category of their own. They include a large portion of the long-gun market.

Assault rifles, on the other hand, have many of the same cosmetic features. The difference between the two is that assault rifles have a selector switch that allows the operator to choose between semi-automatic and fully automatic function.

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