Cole Wist was an A-rated NRA member and a Republican state House representative from Colorado. 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.
In the face of a fierce backlash from the public, Wist lost his seat at the legislature in that year. 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 in the aftermath of a Denver suburb man who was mentally ill being killed. 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 Aurora theater massacre.
Wist left the Republican PartyThis year, they cited the Jan. 6, 2021 insurrection as the reason and are now unaffiliated to any political party. ProPublica spoke to Wist days after the massacre of 19 children and 2 teachers in a Texas elementary school.
Colorado is one of 19 states, including Illinois, FloridaThat have been found in Indiana and elsewhere. red flag lawsSometimes called extreme risk protection orders. Texas does not. A bipartisan coalition of senators from both parties agreed to negotiate possible anti-violence measures.
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 was edited for clarity and length.
Tell me about the reasons you introduced Colorado’s legislation.
People tend to go into their camps whenever there is an incident like this. 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 side, there are people who say no because these are mental health problems and this is an indicator of a larger mental 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. Indiana was one of the first states to do this. 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.
The state legislature was dominated by Republicans in the Senate, while Democrats controlled the House. What was the composition of your district?
I represented a district that was at that time dominated by Republicans. It had been home to Republican legislators in the past, but it was 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.
Who was against you when you ran in 2018 for reelection?
So there’s a group called the Rocky Mountain Gun OwnersA very active gun rights organization. They targeted me, or my race, for campaign activity and actively worked to defeat me. … They put flyers on people’s doors, including my own doorThey used their resources to fight against me.
Are the Rocky Mountain Gun Owners akin to the National Rifle Association
I think they are the no-compromise gun right organization. They are definitely my definition of “certainly”. more aggressive on gun rights issues than the NRAThe NRA is the most well-known, and has the most resources. Rocky Mountain Gun Owners seems to hold the most influence in Colorado. They’ve been successful in recalling a couple of legislators here.
Did it seem like they sacrificed you to send a message that other legislators should follow their lead?
I guess that’s a fair interpretation, that you either stay in line and vote the party line on this issue, or they will remove you. And that’s what they did. There were many other factors at play in 2018. That was also the midterm election of Donald Trump’s first term in office or his only term in office. … So there were more issues in play than gun policy. But it was certainly a group that worked against my reelection and didn’t help. … It might have been enough to suppress turnout on the Republican side for me.
What was the reaction of the GOP leadership to your sponsorship for the red flag bill
At that time, I was the assistant minor leader in the state House. There was an attempt to remove me from that leadership post. This effort was unsuccessful. I think there’s some reluctance in Republican circles here to take on groups like the Rocky Mountain Gun Owners for fear of getting primaried, for fear of having them work against you. People may view my experience as something that discourages them from having conversations. I introduced a controversial bill. Even being open to discussions about gun policy and gun safety legislation in those circles can pose a risk for people in Republican circles. So, if your objective is to stay in office for a long time and continue to get reelected … you don’t cross that line.
What do you think your experience suggests about the likelihood of our politicians taking preventive measures in the wake of Uvalde?
In the aftermath of the event, I see the same signs again. Everyone retreats to the corners. Some people call for the banning of certain types of guns and for changing the purchase age of certain guns. If you try to ban AR-15s, I think that’s a policy solution that some people think is something we should do. I don’t agree with that. We’ve got millions of guns already in the possession of gun owners across the country. What impact is it going to have on the country if certain types of guns are banned? I believe it is better to talk about the reasons people commit these types of violent acts with guns or other weapons. … And so I think red flag laws and legislation that focuses on trying to reduce risk and talking about why these kinds of events happen is the most productive conversation for us to have. Let’s give law enforcement and families tools that they can use.
But one of the things that’s lost in this conversation is that — I’ll talk specifically about Colorado — we have one of the highest suicide rates in the country. We also have the highest gun ownership rate in the country. The highest percentage of suicides are committed by guns. So when folks are going through a severe mental crisis, yes, there’s a risk that they might go commit a homicide, but there’s probably a greater risk that they’re going to hurt themselves. So I think there’s this way of characterizing red flag laws as confiscating guns and trying to hurt someone’s constitutional rights. But instead, I think it’s something that’s being used to help protect that person, to prevent them from harming themselves and prevent them from harming family members.
Can you imagine the impact this experience had on you and your family members?
As a result, I received threats. It was very stressful for me and my family. I don’t miss that part of public life. You also know that social media and other tools have made it very difficult to hold office. People can say anything, and they do say almost anything. I can choose to do one thing or another. As a private citizen, it is possible to either retreat from the subject and not talk about it or to try to do my best to spread awareness and encourage people to get together. I don’t know that you’re ever going to change everyone’s minds. But we don’t solve problems unless we talk to each other and not talk past each other. And every time we have an incident like what happened in Texas this week, there’s sort of the initial, let’s talk, let’s come together, let’s talk about this. But I’m just amazed at how quickly everyone just sort of retreats to the same old political position. I hope this time it is different.