DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Now, President Obama wants the federal government to toughen its gun control laws. And today, he'll be in Colorado, where lawmakers recently passed a series of bills requiring background checks for all gun purchases and also, limiting the size of ammunition clips.

If Colorado serves as a model for what the president is hoping for nationwide, the state also serves as a cautionary tale, as NPR's Scott Horsley reports.

SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: The Century 16 movie theater in Aurora, Colo., has reopened with a new name and a new supply of action flicks. But residents here haven't forgotten last summer's massacre, in which a gunman opened fire during a late-night screening of a Batman movie, killing 12 and wounding nearly 60 others.

This week, prosecutors announced plans to seek the death penalty for the alleged gunman, James Holmes. Colorado lawmakers also responded to the shooting with new gun control laws. State lawmaker Rhonda Fields represents the Aurora neighborhood where the movie shooting took place.

STATE REP. RHONDA FIELDS: I could only imagine what it was like sitting in that theater, about ready to see something that you were anticipating and then, you know, it's just a life-changing event.

HORSLEY: The Aurora shooting also re-opened personal wounds for Fields. Seven years earlier, her son was shot to death shortly after he graduated from Colorado State University.

FIELDS: His car - and him, and his fiance - were riddled with an assault rifle. So I understand the violence, and how murder is just a horrible thing when someone suddenly is taken away from you.

HORSLEY: Fields became an advocate for gun control. And this year, she found plenty of company in Colorado's Democratic House and Senate. The Senate president says lawmakers were forced to act after the mass shootings in Aurora and later, at a Connecticut elementary school. President Obama has been counting on that same public outrage to advance gun control bills nationwide.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: This is our best chance in more than a decade, to take common-sense steps that will save lives.

HORSLEY: At the White House last week, Obama warned even though polls show strong support for universal background checks and other gun control measures, they face powerful opposition from the gun lobby. That's also true here in Colorado.

Dudley Brown runs an organization called Rocky Mountain Gun Owners. His office, in the small town of Windsor, is located near a river named for the gunpowder French trappers once stored there.

DUDLEY BROWN: This is a very Western state with traditional Western values, and citizens had to have firearms for self-defense. And right now, that's still the case.

HORSLEY: Brown complains universal background checks are just a step towards identifying gun owners so the government can seize their weapons, and he calls the 15-bullet limit on ammunition clips arbitrary. He's promising political payback in next year's election that could cost Colorado Democrats their majorities.

BROWN: I liken it to the proverbial hunting season. And we tell gun owners, there's a time to hunt deer, and the next election is the time to hunt Democrats.

HORSLEY: Similar threats have had a powerful effect in Washington, where universal background checks now face an uphill battle. Here in Colorado, State Rep. Fields says she has no regrets.

FIELDS: I just feel like it was the right thing to do. It's the right thing to do for public safety. And if I get recalled because of it, I still think that I was on the right side of history.

HORSLEY: Fields says she has a message for the president and Congress: Don't give up.

Scott Horsley, NPR News, Denver.

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