DENVER A package of Democratic gun control measures began moving through the Colorado Legislature Friday, with Vice President Joe Biden personally phoning four lawmakers from his Colorado ski vacation to speed along the emotional debate.
Biden phoned three freshmen in the state House from moderate districts, along with Democratic House Speaker Mark Ferrandino. The calls came several hours after the chamber started a long debate over gun-control measures including expanded background checks and ammunition limits responses to mass shootings, including the killings at a Colorado movie theater.
Those two measures advanced on unrecorded voice votes Friday. Lawmakers were told to prepare to debate late into the night on other gun-control measures, new fees on background checks and a ban on concealed weapons on public college campuses.
One of the freshmen, Democratic Rep. Tony Exum, hails from conservative Colorado Springs and said he had no idea who would be on the line when a "restricted" number rang his cellphone during afternoon debate.
"He said, `This is Vice President Joe Biden.' I said, `No way!"' Exum recalled with a chuckle after the call.
Exum said that Biden repeatedly called him "chief," a reference to Exum's former service as a fire chief. Exum said Friday night that his mind was already made up to support the gun-control measures, but Biden asked about the package's prospects. Exum said prospects were good and that he was happy to hear from the vice president on Colorado's gun debate.
Biden also talked to Democratic Rep. Mike McLachlan, whose southwest Colorado district includes more Republicans than Democrats.
The vice president also called Democratic Rep. Dominick Moreno, a lawmaker from suburban Denver.
"We just had a brief conversation about what we're doing today and emphasized the importance of Colorado's role in shaping national policy around this issue," he said. Asked what he thought Biden meant, Moreno said, "Well, I can only speculate, but I think mostly because Colorado is such a politically moderate state."
Biden left a message for Ferrandino but didn't speak to him.
The vice president was in Snowmass, just outside Aspen, for a holiday weekend skiing trip with his granddaughters.
Colorado's votes capping magazine sizes and requiring background checks for all gun purchases came after eight hours of debate. The votes were preliminary and unrecorded, but they were the first chance for many lawmakers to debate gun control after mass shootings last year in Aurora, Colo., and Newtown, Conn.
"These high-capacity weapons have no place outside the fields of war," said Rep. Rhonda Fields, an Aurora Democrat who sponsored the ammunition bill, which limits magazines to 15 rounds for all firearms, with a more restrictive eight-round limit for shotguns. The bill makes an exception for magazines that people already have in their possession.
Republicans in the chamber spent hours arguing that the limit violates Second Amendment rights. They also cited a Colorado gun manufacturer that has threatened to leave Colorado if the measure becomes law. The bill was amended to exempt that company, but Republicans still argued against the measure.
"We are not safer by limiting the constitutional rights of law-abiding firearm owners," said Republican Rep. Frank McNulty.
A few Democrats appeared to agree Friday, though an exact vote count won't be known until recorded votes are taken Monday. GOP leaders were hoping gun activists would spend the weekend pressuring rural Democrats like Rep. Ed Vigil of southern Colorado, the only Democrat who argued Friday against any ammunition limit.
"We should be going down the path of making mental health available to people who really need it," Vigil argued.
The gun debate was at times emotional and pointed. One gun lobbyist was asked to leave the Capitol after a heated exchange off the floor with a Republican lawmaker who said the lobbyist was falsely accusing her of considering voting for the gun-control measures. The gallery was at times packed with gun-rights activists.
Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper has said favors some of the gun-control measures. Hickenlooper supports expanded background checks and indicated Thursday that he could support a potential amendment on magazine sizes, if the restriction was between 15 and 20 rounds.
He also said he thinks gun purchasers should pay for their background checks, but he had not made up his mind yet about the ban on concealed firearms on colleges, bills that were also being debated Friday.
All of the proposals still need to be considered by Democrat-controlled Senate.
Democrats in the Legislature said the time is right to limit gun access and magazine sizes to prevent more shootings.
"This is about kids who have been shot, over and over and over again," said Democratic Rep. Crisanta Duran said. "I am tired of seeing kids die, year after year, after year, after year."