This story was originally published by ProPublica.
After a sheriff’s deputy was murdered in a Denver suburb, Colorado state Rep. Cole Wist took action by sponsoring a red flag bill. It likely cost him his seat. ProPublica spoke to Wist about the harsh realities of gun reform.
Cole Wist was a Republican state House member in Colorado with an A grade from the NRA. Then, in 2018, he supported a red flag law, sponsoring a bill to allow guns to be taken away — temporarily — from people who pose an immediate threat to themselves or others.
Wist lost his seat in the legislature that year in the face of an intense backlash from Rocky Mountain Gun Owners,
a gun rights organization in Colorado that boasts it accepts “no compromise” as it battles “the gun grabbers.” The group campaigned against him
, distributing flyers and referring to him on social media as “Cole the Mole.”
Wist, an attorney, doesn’t regret trying to enact what he considered a measured response to an epidemic of gun violence in the United States. He acted after a mentally ill man in his Denver suburb killed a sheriff’s deputy
. The bill didn’t pass until after Wist was out of office and his successor, Tom Sullivan, shepherded it through
. Sullivan is a Democrat who lost his son in the Aurora theater massacre.
Wist left the Republican Party
this year, citing the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection as the reason, and is now unaffiliated with any political party. Days after the slaughter of 19 children and 2 adults in an elementary school in Texas, ProPublica talked to Wist about the challenges ahead as proponents once again work to enact gun reforms.
Colorado is one of 19 states
, including Illinois, Florida
and Indiana, that have red flag laws
, sometimes called extreme risk protection orders. Texas does not. After the Robb Elementary School murders on Tuesday, a bipartisan coalition in the U.S. Senate agreed to negotiate over possible anti-violence measures, including expanding red flag laws.
In Colorado, a spokesperson for the Rocky Mountain Gun Owners called Wist “a sellout” on Friday and said the organization had no choice but to work against him. “At the end of the day, my goal is to hold politicians accountable regardless of whether they’re a Republican or a Democrat,” said RMGO’s Executive Director Taylor Rhodes.
Rhodes called the assault on the elementary school a “massive terrorist attack” but said gun control is not the answer.
“We protect everything in our nation that’s valuable with guns. We protect our banks with guns, courthouses … our homes. We protect them with guns.” The group’s logo includes an image of a firearm that resembles an assault rifle.
This interview with Wist has been edited for length and clarity.
Tell me about why you introduced the legislation in Colorado.
Every time we have an incident like this, people tend to go into their camps. We’ve got some folks who say we should ban certain kinds of guns or expand universal background checks or any other number of policy proposals to try to eliminate guns from society. On the other hand, you have folks who say no, these are mental health issues, this is an indication of a larger mental health crisis in the country. But you know, I don’t really hear a whole lot of policy solutions from those folks. So in an effort to try to pair concerns about mental health and the combination of mental health crisis with access to firearms and weapons, I started investigating extreme risk protection orders and how they’ve been passed in other states. And one of the first states in the country to do this was Indiana. And I don’t think you’d really think that Indiana is a hard left state, by any means. … And ultimately, I decided to sponsor legislation relating to extreme risk protection orders.
When you served in the state legislature, the Republicans controlled the state Senate and Democrats had the House. What was the makeup of your district?
I represented a district that at that time was predominantly Republican. It had historically elected Republican legislators, but it was a suburban district becoming more purple. And, you know, look, when you’re elected to represent a district in the legislature, you’re not just elected by the people that voted for you, you’re elected to represent everyone in the district, and that includes unaffiliated and Democratic voters.