By Keith Coffman
DENVER (Reuters) - Colorado voters ousted two Democratic lawmakers, including the state senate president, in a historic recall vote on Tuesday over their support for tougher gun control laws, handing a major victory to gun rights supporters.
The recall races, the first in Colorado history, are at the epicenter of the national fight over gun control in the aftermath of a series of mass shootings last year, and were seen as a test of the sway of lobbyists on both sides of the debate.
State Senate President John Morse, who helped lead efforts in the state legislature to ban ammunition magazines with more than 15 rounds and to require background checks for private gun sales and transfers, said he had "absolutely no regrets" about pushing the gun-control measures.
"I said at the time if it costs me my political career, so be it," Morse told Reuters shortly after conceding. "That's nothing compared to what the families of (gun violence) victims go through every single day. We did the right thing."
A Colorado Springs Democrat, Morse trailed 50.96 percent to 49.04 percent, according to unofficial results from the Colorado Secretary of State's office.
Also unseated was Democrat state Senator Angela Giron of Pueblo, who conceded defeat as 56.01 percent of voters backed her ouster compared with 43.99 percent who wanted her to stay in office, according to the office.
The issue came to a head in Colorado after gun-rights activists accused Democrats of ramming through the gun control legislation in the aftermath of a series of shootings which included the killing of 12 people in a suburban Denver movie theatre last year.
Angered by the gun control push, gun rights advocates had sought the recall to send a message to current and future legislators that the bills had gone too far with efforts to curb firearm access. Opponents viewed the recall effort as a bullying tactic and not the proper way to handle a policy dispute.
Morse's Republican opponent, former Colorado Springs Councilman Bernie Herpin, said it was Morse's own unresponsiveness to constituents that prompted the recall effort, a process in which voters petition to remove an elected official before his or her term has ended.
"When you (have) 10,000 valid signatures on a recall petition, that's a powerful message," Herpin said before the voting ended.
The recall battle drew more than $3.5 million in campaign contributions. But the vast majority of the funds - nearly $3 million - came from opponents of the recall drive who support stricter gun control, figures from the secretary of state's office showed.
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.
After claiming victory late on Tuesday, Herpin said the push to derail the recall had "backfired" on the gun control lobby.
"In Colorado, we don't need some New York billionaire telling us what size soft drinks we can have, how much salt to put on our food, or the size of the ammunition magazines on our guns," he said.
Only about $500,000 came from the pro-gun lobby, mainly $368,000 donated by the National Rifle Association, the nation's biggest pro-gun lobby, which feted Morse's ouster late on Tuesday.
"The people of Colorado Springs sent a clear message to the Senate leader that his primary job was to defend their rights and freedoms and that he is ultimately accountable to them - his constituents, and not to the dollars or social engineering agendas of anti-gun billionaires," the NRA's Institute for Legislative Action said in a statement.
A poll conducted last month showed Colorado residents in general opposed the recall efforts, with 60 percent saying that when voters disagree with a legislator they should wait for re-election rather than mount a recall.
Morse was seen as the more 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.
Republican Senate candidate and former Pueblo deputy police chief George Rivera, said Giron had been hurt by her support for other laws, 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.
(Writing by Tim Gaynor; Editing by Richard Chang and Patrick Graham)