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Conservative, gun-toting Colorado Springs has had two mass shootings this autumn

click to enlarge Weeks after the Halloween shooting, the area sees its second multiple-casualty shooting. - TRAVIS LOWELL
  • Travis Lowell
  • Weeks after the Halloween shooting, the area sees its second multiple-casualty shooting.

It didn't take long after 57-year-old Robert Lewis Dear slaughtered three people and injured nine others at Planned Parenthood of the Rocky Mountains' west-side clinic for local and national Republicans to start playing defense.

This was Colorado Springs' second multiple-casualty shooting in a matter of weeks, and with it came the usual debate over gun control laws. This time around, it also ushered in a debate about abortion, and the virulent dialogue that surrounds it. For many locals, the shooting also meant it was time, once again, to defend the city they call home.

That was verbalized in a statement by Mayor John Suthers, saying: "My role as the Mayor of Colorado Springs is not to politicize the incident — but to stand in support of our community as we recover, and to make it abundantly clear to our nation and our world that Colorado Springs will not be defined by this incident. Rather, we will choose to be defined by the heroic actions of our first responders and the way our community will undoubtedly come together to support the victims and their families."

Colorado Springs, known for its conservatism, tends to make the national news with less-than-flattering headlines. Many locals recall how the press lambasted the city during the recession, when budgets ran so low in this tax-averse city that streetlights were shut off and garbage piled up in parks. Douglas Bruce, now a convicted felon, also made the national press when he kicked a photographer during his time as a state representative. And then there's State Rep. Gordon Klingenschmitt, R-Colorado Springs, the preacher-turned-politician who is offensive enough to make Donald Trump blush.

But the negative tone in the press hasn't always been justified. For instance, after a building housing the Colorado Springs chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People was bombed (albeit, not very successfully) in January, the national press was quick to tie the Springs' conservatism to the attack. But the bomber, Thaddeus Murphy of Colorado Springs, claimed he was targeting an accountant who wouldn't call him back. (The accountant, who was deceased at the time, did not have offices in the building.)

Similarly, while Colorado Springs is in the headlines for the Planned Parenthood shootings, Dear actually lived in Hartsel and had ties to North and South Carolina. The tiny town of Hartsel is about 65 miles northwest of downtown Colorado Springs.

Still, from an outsider's viewpoint, Colorado Springs' culture might seem to foster an attack on an abortion clinic, because it is both conservative on social issues and pro-gun. The city was long ago christened "the evangelical Vatican" for its large number of evangelical nonprofits and churches, such as New Life Church and Focus on the Family. Nearly 41 percent of county residents are registered Republicans, compared to 21 percent who are registered Democrats. A 2014 Massachusetts Institute of Technology study rated Colorado Springs as the fourth most conservative city in the nation, based on "opinion estimation" and other factors such as the presence of an elected mayor, the popular initiative, partisan elections, term limits and at-large elections.

On the gun side, El Paso County Commissioners, all proud gun owners, once again recognized "Friends of NRA Day" in March. Suthers said he saw no reason to restrict open carry laws shortly after the mass shooting in the Springs on Halloween, which killed three people and the shooter. The city is also a military mecca, home to Fort Carson, the Air Force Academy, Schriever Air Force Base, Peterson Air Force Base, and Cheyenne Mountain Air Force Station.

But so what? Does a gun-friendly, socially conservative culture really lead to mass shootings? Or are Colorado Springs shooters the same as they are everywhere else: angry, extremist loners; timebombs waiting to go off?

In the wake of the Planned Parenthood shootings, NBC reported that according to "two law enforcement sources with knowledge of the case," Dear said "no more baby parts" when taken into questioning. The comment could be tied to videos released by the anti-abortion organization The Center for Medical Progress earlier this year, which purported to show Planned Parenthood officials selling fetal tissue and organs. (Planned Parenthood has denied that it was selling the body parts, and countered that the videos were deceptively edited, a claim that's been backed up by independent analysis.)

click to enlarge Dear reportedly said 'no more baby parts.' - IRENE LUCKETT
  • Irene Luckett
  • Dear reportedly said 'no more baby parts.'

The revelation created a sticky situation for Republicans who have been vocal opponents of Planned Parenthood. Ben Carson, for instance, tried blaming both sides of the abortion debate for "hateful rhetoric." Donald Trump called Dear "a maniac." Carly Fiorina, meanwhile, was unrepentant about her past statements against Planned Parenthood, telling Fox News, "This is so typical of the left to immediately begin demonizing the messenger because they don't agree with the message."

Closer to home, U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner of Colorado sent out a release expressing sadness at "the senseless act of violence," but never mentioning Planned Parenthood. A mass email from Jeff Hays, chairman of the El Paso County Republican Party, expressed grief for the victims but added, "[O]ur grieving has been interrupted by Planned Parenthood and certain politicians who would exploit our tragedy to promote their agenda." Hays said that Dear's rampage could not be blamed "on anti-abortion rhetoric and videos."

Heidi Beirich, the director of the Intelligence Project at the Southern Poverty Law Center, disagrees. She says "virulent anti-abortion rhetoric" does inspire violence, but that's hardly unique to Colorado Springs.

"Even though Colorado Springs — you're known for having Focus on the Family there, and these big Christian institutions, Christian right outfits — the fact of the matter is that there has been violence against Planned Parenthoods all over the place and not in Colorado Springs in the past," she says. "Louisiana has Planned Parenthoods that have been hit, for example, repeatedly."

Colorado Springs, she says, is more known for anti-gay hate groups, and the state of Colorado for anti-government extremism, particularly in the far southern portion of the state. The SPLC "hate map" lists the following "hate groups" in Colorado Springs: The Pray in Jesus Name Project (headed by Klingenschmitt), the Nation of Islam, the Ku Klos Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, and the Family Research Institute. An additional 11 groups are listed either for other parts of the state or Colorado as a whole. Meanwhile, SPLC lists 784 hate groups operating in the United States, with a majority appearing to be in the eastern half of the country (including the South).

"Colorado is not a hotbed of domestic terrorism, certainly not of this type," Beirich says. "... If you were to look at a list of right-wing extremist terrorism, Colorado rarely comes up."

But even if it did, she says, that's not an indication that the area would be plagued with mass shootings — there's no clear connection between the presence of hate groups and violence. And, as was the case with Dear, many attackers will travel to conduct these kinds of attacks.

The issue of guns is a little more complicated.

There's not a headcount on gun owners, and an FBI report on background checks did not show gun-buyers by state, making it difficult to compare Colorado's gun sales with other states'. The County Sheriffs of Colorado does keep track of new and renewed concealed handgun permits by county, giving a hint of how gun-friendly a community is. In 2014, El Paso County residents accounted for 7,275 of the 40,896 permits that were applied for in the state. By comparison, Denver residents had 1,168 applications.

Statewide, the Colorado Bureau of Investigations notes that it processed 314,976 background checks for gun buyers in 2014, a 21 percent decrease from record-setting 2013. Of those, 98 percent were approved. The system identified 211 people who attempted to buy a gun when they had an active warrant. They were arrested.

Also in 2014, CBI conducted 44,362 background checks for a concealed handgun permit, compared with 6,212 in 2003.

As of October 2015, CBI processed 265,339 background checks for gun sales and 31,885 for concealed handgun permits.

Colorado Springs, with a population of over 445,000 people, has held fairly steady on homicide rates. It has had 25 so far this year, compared with 23 at the same time last year. Last year, there were 23 homicides in total, and in 2013 there were 31.

In Boise, Idaho, which has a population of 205,000 (in a metro area of 650,000), those numbers look high. Boise had just four homicides in 2014 and three in 2013. Its police department took about 148,000 calls for service last year compared to Colorado Springs' 343,000.

Wichita, Kansas, with a population of 382,368, is more on par with the Springs. It's had 20 homicides so far this year, plus 26 in 2014 and 17 in 2013. It lists yearly calls for service as 218,600.

Gun control laws (including those that mandate background checks) are meant to protect citizens. As is predictable by now, the Planned Parenthood shooting has led to a dust-up over Colorado's laws. The main target? Open carry.

In a press release, the pro-gun control group Colorado Ceasefire took Suthers to task for defending open carry in Colorado Springs.

"We at Ceasefire note that the open carry of firearms cannot be a federal constitutional right, as it is prohibited fully or partly in nineteen states," the release stated. "It cannot be a Colorado constitutional right, as it is prohibited in the city and county of Denver, a prohibition that has been upheld in court. Furthermore, there appears to be no provision for open carry in the Colorado Revised Statutes. Our examination of these indicates that open carry appears to exist by lack of a prohibition. That is a situation the Colorado General Assembly should address and rectify."

The Independent called Dean Toda, communications director for the Colorado House Democrats, to ask if any gun control legislation was in the works for the state, but did not hear back. However, gun laws have passed in recent years.

In 2013, voters recalled State Senate President John Morse, D-Colorado Springs, with just 50.89 percent of voters supporting the ouster. The recall came after Morse took the lead on passing gun control legislation. Morse said he was motivated by the 2012 Aurora movie theater shooting that killed 12 people, and the Sandy Hook shooting that killed 20 children and six adults at an elementary school.

"None of us wants to live in a society where somebody takes his mom's AR-15 and blows away [20] kids, shooting them in the head," Morse told the Independent in 2013.

His legislation included: a limit on ammunition magazines to 15 rounds; the addition of regulations for arms bought at gun shows, on the Internet and between private individuals; and a requirement that gun buyers pay for their own background checks. Morse also proposed a bill that would have made manufacturers and sellers liable for assault-weapon violence committed by those "negligently entrusted" with guns, which he eventually withdrew. President Obama called the three laws that did pass a reasonable model for the nation on gun control.

Pam Zubeck contributed reporting for this story.

  • Conservative, gun-toting Colorado Springs has had two mass shootings this autumn

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