By Keith Coffman
DENVER (Reuters) - Two Colorado state lawmakers who supported tougher gun control laws following the shooting massacre at a movie theater last year face recall elections on Tuesday, with legislators across the country on both sides of the debate awaiting the outcome.
The recall races, the first in Colorado history, are part of a national debate over gun control that so far has resulted in few new laws being passed. If the recalls succeed, they could have a chilling effect on lawmakers throughout the country the next time they vote on gun control measures.
The recall targets the president of the state senate, Democrat John Morse of Colorado Springs, who helped lead efforts to ban ammunition magazines with more than 15 rounds and to require background checks for private gun sales and transfers in the state.
Democrat Angela Giron of Pueblo also faces a recall in races that have seen a blistering campaign of negative ads from both sides. Polls open at 7 a.m. local time, although early voting began on Monday.
The gun control measures were passed after 12 people were killed and 58 injured in a rampage at a Denver suburban movie theater that police said was carried out by a 24-year-old graduate student armed with an assault rifle, a shotgun and a pistol.
Gun rights advocates sought the elections as a way to send a political message to current and future legislators that the bills had gone too far with efforts to curb firearm access. Opponents view the recall effort as a bullying tactic.
Morse's Republican opponent, former Colorado Springs Councilman Bernie Herpin, said it was Morse's own "unresponsiveness" to constituents on gun control and other issues that prompted the recall effort.
"When you (have) 10,000 valid signatures on a recall petition, that's a powerful message," Herpin said.
The issue came to a head in Colorado after Republicans and gun-rights activists accused Democrats of ramming through the gun control legislation in the wake of the massacres at the movie theater and a Connecticut elementary school last year.
MILLIONS OF DOLLARS SPENT
The recall elections have attracted more than $3.5 million in campaign contributions. However, the vast majority of the funds - nearly $3 million - have come from opponents of the recall effort who support stricter gun control, according to figures the Colorado Secretary of State's office released on Monday.
Only about $500,000 has come from the pro-gun lobby, mainly $368,000 donated by the National Rifle Association, the nation's biggest pro-gun lobby.
New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who founded Mayors Against Illegal Guns, wrote a $350,000 personal check to the anti-recall campaigns. Los Angeles billionaire philanthropist Eli Broad kicked in another $250,000 to stave off the recalls.
The campaign has not been a friendly one. One television ad, paid for by Rocky Mountain Gun Owners, accused Morse of taking marching orders from "East Coast liberals like billionaire playboy New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg."
A Quinnipiac poll of voters across Colorado conducted last month showed opposition to recall efforts, with 60 percent of respondents saying that when voters disagree with a legislator they should wait for re-election rather than mount a recall.
The survey, of 1,184 voters statewide with a margin of error of plus or minus 2.9 percent, gave no indication of how the legislators facing recall might fare on Tuesday.
Morse is seen as the most vulnerable of the pair, as a quarter of his district sits in Colorado Springs, long a Republican stronghold, although registration in the Senate district is split almost evenly among Democrats, Republicans and unaffiliated voters.
Further south in Pueblo, where Giron faces a recall vote, Democrats hold a registration advantage. Her opponent, George Rivera, is a former deputy police chief of Pueblo and former Democrat who said Giron is out of step with voters.
Rivera said her support for other laws had hurt district residents, including legislation to allow cities in the Denver area to draw water from the Arkansas River basin at the expense of local communities. But the primary issue remained gun control.
"That was the match that lit the fuse," he said.
(Editing by Tim Gaynor and Lisa Shumaker)