DENVER - Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper urged lawmakers to debate gun control in the aftermath of mass shootings in Aurora and Connecticut, saying Thursday that "our democracy demands this type of debate."
Recalling last year's theater shooting and destructive wildfires, Hickenlooper began his annual State of the State by calling a moment of silence for the "days we will never forget."
"Belief in a better tomorrow is the story of the West. This is our history," Hickenlooper said, before outlining legislative priorities for the year. Gun control is likely to be one of the more contentious issues at the state Capitol this year.
The Democrat called for more background checks in cases where they don't currently exist - such as sales between individuals or purchases through Craigslist.
"Let's examine our laws and make the changes needed to keep guns out of the hands of dangerous people," he said. Some Democrats have indicated they will introduce a ban on assault weapons, but Hickenlooper did not mention that proposal in his speech. He said "it's not enough to prevent dangerous people from getting weapons."
"We have to do a better job of identifying and helping people who are a threat to themselves and others. That is why we are requesting your support for a comprehensive overhaul of our state's mental health system," he said. Last month, he called for an expansion of services for the mentally ill.
Hickenlooper also renewed a call for the passage of civil unions for same-sex couples - legislation that House Republicans blocked last session when they controlled the chamber. With Democrats now controlling both chambers for the first time in Hickenlooper's tenure, the governor said it's time to pass the legislation.
"This year, let's do it. Let's pass civil unions!" he said.
He also said lawmakers should pass legislation lowering tuition for illegal immigrants who graduate from Colorado high schools. The students currently pay out-of-state rates much higher than legal state residents. The legislation also failed last year.
"Let's find an equitable and fair way for undocumented kids - kids who have grown up here and done well in school - to pursue a higher education," he said.
Aurora Mayor Steve Hogan, Aurora Police Chief Dan Oates, and Aurora Fire Chief Mike Garcia were among the guests invited for the speech. The theater shootings in the city this summer left 12 people dead and 70 injured.
Colorado also experienced one of the worst wildfire seasons in state history. Fires near Fort Collins and Evergreen and in Colorado Springs destroyed hundreds of homes.
While Democrats have an advantage in passing their legislation, Republicans are sure to put up a fight, especially on some gun-control proposals.
Senate Republican leader Bill Cadman strongly rejected the governor's call for expanded background checks on gun purchases. He said it would be expensive and burdensome to try to background every purchaser.
"We can't afford a government that big, and frankly it's a government we don't want," Cadman said.
Republican Attorney General John Suthers, who attended the speech, wanted more details about the governor's gun proposals.
"He stated the obvious - that we're going to see a gun control debate," Suthers said. "I frankly didn't think there were a whole lot of specifics. And that lack of specifics is where the debate's really going to be."
Democrats didn't fault the governor's vagueness on gun control.
"It's too soon," said Democratic Senate President John Morse, a former police chief who has talked about a possible ban on assault weapons.
"We need to reduce gun violence in this state and in this country. We know that. We don't know yet how best to do that," Morse said.
Hickenlooper also highlighted economic accomplishments of the last year and said there's improvement in the general fund that has allowed more money for schools, but that there's still ground to make up for what's been cut in recent years.
He urged lawmakers to work on expanding Medicaid. He has previously said expanding Medicaid coverage to about 160,000 adults with low incomes can be done by finding savings in the program. But Republicans are skeptical.
Voters approved marijuana for recreational use, and Hickenlooper said lawmakers should "implement this new law in a way that promotes the health and safety of all Coloradans." To that end, he wants them to try again to pass legislation setting a standard for what's considered too high to drive.
The governor also remains committed to natural gas development, saying that innovation in drilling technology makes the energy source cheaper and more abundant. He said the most effect way to develop natural gas is through uniform regulations for municipalities, not "a patchwork of rules and regulations."
Hickenlooper also touched on lighter topics, like the Denver Broncos, who have playoff game coming up Saturday against the Baltimore Ravens.
"This might be the appropriate time to note that the road to the Super Bowl goes right through Denver," he said.
Lawmakers began the year's 120-day session on Wednesday, with party leaders delivering speeches outlining their priorities.
- Associated Press writer Kristen Wyatt contributed to this report.