Guns: Concealed controversy
As permits soar, the surprisingly quiet battle over under-wraps weapons continues.
By Michael Booth and Kevin Simpson
The Denver Post
Article Last Updated: 05/04/2008 08
23 PM MDT
Michelle Cline 39, of Keenesburg cocks her Springfield XD 40, .40 Caliber Pistol at the range her husband Patrick made on their land. (Joe Amon, The Denver Post)
They squeezed behind classroom desks and dutifully laid out their notebooks, seeking permits to carry a concealed handgun.
A church elder hoping to feel less helpless should another gunman open fire in a sanctuary; a retired woman wanting backup on long rural drives; a burly, bearded man who thinks the world is getting crazier; a disabled man and his concerned father, seeking protection from street vultures.
Shooting expert Doug Hamilton's pupils at Cherry Creek's Family Shooting Center cut a wide demographic swath, but all were eager, attentive and sincerely awed by the power and responsibility a concealed-carry permit confers on the gun owner.
"If you use deadly force for you or your family, right or wrong, your life will be forever changed," Hamilton warned them.
In fact, permit seekers spend much of their mandatory class time learning how to avoid actually using a gun — a paradox that mirrors the contradictions and illusions dominating modern gun regulation in Colorado and across the nation.
As the state legislature dances around the issue, concealed-carry permits multiply and the U.S. Supreme Court deliberates a pivotal Second Amendment case about whether handguns can be banned, both sides are stuck in rhetorical and statistical traps. Misperceptions about gun ownership, exposure to violence and the everyday use of firearms are so deep-seated that they often persist, despite evidence to the contrary.
• Gun opponents claim more guns equal more crime and that millions of concealed-permit holders guarantee shootouts over parking spaces. Instead, years of record keeping in Colorado and other concealed-carry states show permit owners to be an exceptionally law-abiding group.
• Gun enthusiasts argue more guns equal less crime — that legions of concealed-carry owners will deter "the bad guys." It's true that firearms-related crimes such as homicide and robbery are down sharply, but researchers point to a long-term decline influenced by larger forces and no impact on crime attributable to concealed-carry laws.
• Conventional wisdom has held that America is a gun culture and Americans love their guns. Yet national surveys consistently show 75 percent to 80 percent public support for much tougher gun laws, from registration and tracking of all guns to mandatory safety classes.
• Arguments from gun-control advocates often focus on children killed or injured in horrific accidents. But accidental gun deaths of kids up to age 14 have plummeted nearly 80 percent since the 1980s.
• Gun buyers often cite "crime going out of control" as a good reason to own a weapon. But FBI statistics show that the U.S. violent-crime rate is down 38
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percent since the crack-fueled peak of the early 1990s.
• Many who support stricter gun laws point to a higher risk of murder or suicide in homes with guns compared with the relatively rare instances in which guns repel a home invasion. Yet neutral researchers say that claim has long been flawed and that gun opponents ignore statistics of gun owners defending themselves up to 1 million times a year.
Recent high-profile shootings at a Colorado church and missionary center, Northern Illinois University and Virginia Tech have spurred only scattered action on behalf of gun control. But they've stirred gun-rights proponents to seek concealed-carry permits in record numbers statewide and across the nation, their vivid argument being
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that a "gun-free zone" such as a school or a church represents the easiest target for crime.
"The history of gun control is one of cycles of attention," said Kristen Goss, an assistant professor of political science at Duke University, who grew up in Colorado and gravitated to the issue after the Columbine shootings. "We're in a cycle of lack of attention. There's still some law-making going on but mainly on individual questions."
Forever changed by Columbine
This lull may be broken in coming months, with a decisive Second Amendment test on the horizon and a new safety-law emphasis by gun opponents. Court watchers expect the U.S. Supreme Court to overturn a Washington, D.C., ban on handgun ownership, clearing the way for renewed gun-lobby attacks on other state and local gun restrictions.
Gun-control advocates, meanwhile, are pushing — gently and, so far, unsuccessfully — for personal-liability laws in Colorado, and on the national level, they are gathering support for ballistic "fingerprinting" of each weapon to better track crime.
Away from emotional public forums, a quieter consensus emerges.
Judy Bederman remembers worrying about her high-school-age daughter on the day of the Columbine tragedy. It was some hours before she knew her child — locked down at another school — was safe. But the raw emotion of that day pushed Bederman to become one of the Million Moms advocating stronger gun laws.
Still, she grew up in a hunting family and respects the culture.
"My point is not to take away people's guns," Bederman said, "but to make sure that people who shouldn't have them don't have access."
Anginette Jorrey, a frequent shooter at the Cherry Creek range and a hunter since childhood, recalls walking through a Texas pecan grove as a 12-year-old on a Thanksgiving hunt when her uncle pronounced her mature enough to hold a shotgun responsibly.
Touching the wooden stock and the metal barrel, she said, was "a rite of passage into growing up."
Still, she added, anyone buying a handgun should first go through a gun-education course — not just those who seek a concealed-carry permit. "People just don't know how to use them," she said.
Public opinion fails to create legislative compromises, though, because gun-control advocates are scattered and underfunded. The gun-rights lobby, by contrast, is passionate, bankrolled and organized around a tangible hobby, said Goss, author of the book "Disarmed: The Missing Movement for Gun Control in America."
That grassroots intensity also pays big political dividends, said Jens Ludwig, a professor at the University of Chicago who often testifies in legislative meetings — where he finds the room packed with an overwhelming majority of gun-rights supporters.
"Politicians look at this and make a calculation that it's not in their interest to force this issue," he said.
Gun-control advocates have seen the opposition mobilize and spend at a moment's notice. Meanwhile, Colorado's Million Mom chapter numbers about 500 names on a mailing list and no longer collects dues.
"People ask me, what's our budget for the child-access bill?" said Bederman, referring to a recent measure that ultimately died in committee. "Our budget is sending e-mails."
Some gun owners, by contrast, brandish their strong feelings nearly everywhere they go.
Bob McBride leads a group of legal machine-gun collectors. He notes that a Western gun-rights club offers business cards for concealed-carry permit holders to drop off at locations that bar all firearms. The cards say: "No Concealed Carry, No Money."
Denver's mayor backs crackdown
Despite holding a majority in both houses of Congress, traditionally pro-gun-control Democrats have been largely silent on the issue in a presidential-election year. Candidates have sometimes awkwardly tiptoed around the matter, reflecting a widely held belief that the party's strident anti-gun stance contributed to losses in the 2000 election.
But big-city mayors have pressed for a firearms crackdown, spurred by New York's Michael Bloomberg and Boston's Thomas Menino. In 2006, they launched the Mayors Against Illegal Guns coalition, a group that includes Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper among more than 300 members.
Those favoring tighter firearms laws argue that while crime and accident rates are down, 30,000 Americans dying by gun homicide or suicide is a shameful annual toll.
Denver's gun laws, which ban assault weapons, so-called Saturday night specials and open carrying of firearms, so far have withstood earlier legislative efforts to trump them with more liberal state laws.
Reflecting the national trend, controversy over gun laws in Colorado has spiked intermittently. In recent years, advocates on both sides clashed over closing the "gun-show loophole" in the immediate post-Columbine atmosphere and, in 2003, over liberalizing concealed-carry requirements.
In both cases, opponents forecast dire consequences.
Gun-rights forces predicted that closing the gun-show loophole meant any gathering of gun owners, even a hunting party, could be legally construed as a "gun show." Similarly, opponents of concealed carrying envisioned minor spats erupting in Wild West gunplay.
Amendment 22, which widened the net for background checks on gun buyers, passed overwhelmingly in 2000. It won 70 percent of the vote, despite gun-lobby opposition, at a time when Columbine emotions ran high. The Columbine killers acquired guns through a straw buyer at a gun show.
The measure marked a rare attempt to leverage poll support for gun control through a costly and labor-intensive initiative process. But the movement hasn't found the cash or energy to try it again.
"We had momentum from Columbine," said Tom Mauser, board president of Colorado Ceasefire, whose son, Daniel, died in the 1999 school rampage. "Unfortunately, most of the time people accept a high level of gun deaths. They don't like shootings, but is that enough to motivate them to action? No."
Colorado loosened law in 2003
Meanwhile, powered by the National Rifle Association and allies, the most successful gun-rights campaign in the past decade expanded concealed-carry rights through state legislatures. Colorado liberalized its law in 2003, and 9,880 people sought permits statewide last year — up 49 percent from 2006.
"They said the streets would run red with blood," said Larimer County Sheriff Jim Alderden, recalling opponents of the new law that made it easier for citizens to qualify for a concealed-carry permit. "Some legislators felt that people would use this as an excuse to shoot people. But people just want to protect themselves and their families."
What figures are available on concealed-carry crimes suggest permit holders to be a law-abiding group. One study of Florida's first 15 years as a "shall-issue" state (more restrictive laws specified that authorities have ultimate discretion and "may issue" permits) by the libertarian Cato Institute reported only 146 firearm-related crimes by permit holders — who numbered nearly 800,000 at the time.
Numerous academic studies echo those results: Almost by definition, permit holders must prove they already are stable, law-abiding citizens.
In Colorado, both denials and revocations of concealed-carry permits hover roughly between 1 percent and 2 percent of the applications. Even local gun-control advocates say that concealed carrying no longer ranks among their top concerns.
"Clearly, some people have the need to carry," said Ceasefire's Mauser, who then added a wry aside. "With some of the threats I get, I wonder if I should be one of them."
Mauser, the most visible local advocate for gun control, hasn't seen much action at the Capitol this legislative session, despite a Democratic majority.
Only a handful of gun-related bills emerged from both sides of the aisle. And only one, which would hold negligent gun owners responsible for harm done by minors who access their firearms, has attracted much controversy.
Although Senate sponsor Sue Windels, D-Arvada, considered the measure "hardly earth-shaking," the gun lobby quickly mobilized and flooded her and other lawmakers with e-mails and phone calls.
"It's irritating," said Windels, "when we feel legislation is misrepresented and we're having to deal with several dozen people contacting us, and we have to explain what the bill does, only to have them say, 'Well, it's a slippery slope.' "
"We have to be ever-vigilant"The slippery-slope retort underscores how, from a gun-rights vantage point, even incremental attempts at firearms restrictions prompt close scrutiny. Advocates such as Sen. Greg Brophy, R-Wray, credit that attention for limiting opponents to relatively low-key legislative efforts.
"We have to be ever-vigilant," he said.
Last month, gun-control activists demonstrated as part of a national string of events in which 32 protesters commemorated the 32 killed last year at Virginia Tech by lying on the grounds of the state Capitol.
No legislators braved a frigid spring wind to greet or even observe the circle of re-enactors. The organizers were frustrated but not yet despairing of attempts to write gun laws politicians will support.
"Poll after poll after poll shows people, even gun owners, support what we want," said Marilee Louis Posavec.
In recent weeks, Mayors Against Illegal Guns took a different route to change — through mega-retailer Wal-Mart, the nation's leading gun seller and a company whose sheer size can steer social norms on health care, the environment and other issues.
The company has agreed to help law enforcement by videotaping gun sales, tracking guns bought at its stores that contribute to crimes and blocking sales to buyers whose background checks are inconclusive.
More of that evolutionary change in gun regulation — a set of practical crime-targeting measures emanating from middle America — remains the elusive goal of Colorado activists.
"People know there's some way to work this out, for people who are responsible gun owners who have specific reasons to have them but to stop people who shouldn't have guns," said Diane Kruse, one of the Million Moms. "The general public gets that and is asking political leadership for ways to do that — to find a middle ground on this."
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Michelle Cline didn't spend time around guns until she started tagging along on her boyfriend's hunting trips. When they stopped to camp, they would stick a paper plate in a tree and take target practice.
Turned out she was a natural.
Eighteen years later, they still shoot together — and several months ago, she completed a course that helped her qualify for a concealed-carry permit.
Now Cline, a 39-year-old mother of two who works part time selling trucks in Weld County, carries a Smith & Wesson .38-caliber revolver almost everywhere she goes.
"I'm trying to form a habit because you just hear about all these crazy people anymore," Cline said. "I have the kids with me when I'm not at work, and the thought of something happening and having no control over the situation just terrifies me.
"If I have the opportunity to save myself or my children and a gun gives me that opportunity, I'll definitely take it. Not to say that I'd be able to do something that would change the outcome, but it makes me feel better that a gun might give me the upper hand."
Her training included extensive work not only on laws and safety but also on shooting proficiency — in contrast to some courses that involve only classroom work. Through timed simulations on the range, she gained confidence in her ability to effectively draw and fire a concealed weapon.
"And I'd never done anything like that," she said. "I'd never thought about being in that position where you'd have to draw a gun and shoot before they shoot you."
- Kevin Simpson
Colin Lundholm, 22, is a former military police officer who would like to carry his legal, concealed handgun to classes at Red Rocks Community College. But, like most campuses in Colorado, Red Rocks is off-limits to people carrying a gun. Lundholm is taking classes in law enforcement and eventually would like to work for the FBI or another federal agency.
"I grew up in Eagle, Colorado, but I never shot a weapon until I went into the military. Then, I was used to having one on me all the time," Lundholm said.
"Knowing hand-to-hand combat and how to avoid certain situations just isn't enough sometimes. Wearing it makes you more aware of what's going on around you."
Lundholm talks of the gun as protection not necessarily for himself but for other people — including the sister-in-law and her young child with whom he shares a home.
"I feel a responsibility to those around me who have not had any training and who may be helpless.
"Most people who have concealed-carry weapons are not vigilantes looking for a fight. There are a lot of police who go their whole career without having to shoot, but that small chance of helping somebody makes it worth it to me."
The Red Rocks campus police chief has said students might be afraid if they saw Lundholm's gun.
Impossible, he responds.
"I carry it inside the waistband, in a small holster. I'm very careful that nobody sees it. I don't want to draw attention to myself."
He rejects the idea that schools of any kind can be an island of special rules.
"Schools are a gun-free zone? The bad guy doesn't care about that. Nineteen of the 32 people killed at Virginia Tech were old enough to have a concealed-carry weapon."
- Michael Booth
The father & son
Harry and John Burnham started shooting together as a father-and-son hobby a few years ago. John Burnham is partially disabled from cerebral palsy, and now that he is 21, he has pursued concealed-carry permit classes. He is interested, among other things, in carrying a handgun for his protection when he is in vulnerable situations.
"We're from Memphis originally, and Memphis is like the murder capital," said Harry Burnham. "Seven or eight years ago, I got my handgun permit down there. I started working with my son to shoot; he started getting interested in shooting for sport and hunting."
John Burnham loved the sport from the start. "I liked anything with a high caliber. Dad bought me a Springfield 1911 .45 caliber. One, I want to have protection; two, I've just always loved shooting and wanted to have my own permit; three, I want to be a gunsmith soon, and, to do that, I need to learn every aspect of a gun, and I figured owning a concealed-carry permit would be the best way to do it."
John divides his time between a Thornton apartment with his father and a dorm at Metropolitan State College of Denver.
His father worries about John traveling alone downtown. "He's learning to do a lot of things by himself, but if I'm not around, he's easy prey for crime," he said. "He is going to take a class to shoot out of a wheelchair. From a wheelchair, it'd be just like me and you sitting on a stool."
John Burnham was surprised and pleased the concealed-carry classes emphasized avoiding gun use whenever possible, and safely storing guns if kids are around.
"It was balancing things out, that's why I liked it. I believe in the right to bear arms," John said. "If some people don't want them, they don't have to have them, but they shouldn't take them away from others. People should look at it from both sides, not just one side."
- Michael Booth
Reg Hafner is a retired Army military police officer in Colorado Springs who doesn't believe people should wait for the authorities to come help them in times of emergency. Hafner, 67, said he keeps a weapon near his bed and will take one with him on some errands or for walking his dog at night.
"You can't hardly walk down the street anymore without being accosted. Everywhere that has concealed carry, crime seems to be stable because people are defending themselves."
Hafner said he has used a handgun twice to help ward off potential crime: once in the mountains on a family picnic, when young men were harassing his wife. "I showed them the weapon, and they took off like a chicken with the Colonel chasing them."
The other time was at Halloween, when suspicious people way too old to be seeking candy came banging on his door. "They definitely were not trick-or-treating."
Hafner is proud that his children grew up respecting and understanding guns. His daughter, an Army captain, just left for another tour in Afghanistan; she has earned medals for defending fellow soldiers in firefights. He does not see a danger for kids in homes with guns, if the parents teach them well.
"If they're curious, you take them out and train them how to shoot. My dad taught me. . . . I've got locked cabinets. I have one firearm at night on the nightstand. When the dog goes off, that's when I get up."
- Michael Booth