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El Paso County’s sheriff attracts cheers and jeers for his posturing on gun control 

Of bullets and ballots

On March 9, he took to the radio and, citing questionable evidence, all but accused the Senate President of extortion. On March 13, he stood before a packed theater, encouraged the passionate crowd to boo that same politician, and seemed to revel in the idea that he might not be able to enforce a new law or two.

Along the way, El Paso County Sheriff Terry Maketa also made some reasoned criticisms of the gun-control measures that Democrats are moving through the state Legislature. But the depth of his arguments probably isn't what got him onto The O'Reilly Factor and FOX News last week. And his willingness to embrace that kind of attention has the Senate President, Colorado Springs Democrat John Morse, and others wondering if the term-limited Maketa is already thinking about currying right-wing favor for a political campaign in 2014.

"I've known that politically he was far to the right," Morse says, "but I was surprised, because he usually stays within his lane of law enforcement and doesn't stray out of his lane into politics. And this was very politically motivated."

In response, Maketa embraces a representative's posture: He says he was "standing up for citizens, and standing up for their constitutional rights," because they weren't able to adequately comment on the gun measures.

'Things could change'

Speaking with KVOR talk-show host Jeff Crank on March 9, Maketa alleged that Senate Democrats had stymied debate when gun bills were in committee, and had threatened retaliation if sheriffs wouldn't alter their position opposing them.

Citing e-mails from the head of the state sheriffs association, Maketa claimed that the Dems — starting with Morse — were holding out on pay increases for sheriffs until the sheriffs changed or tempered their opposition.

"I felt that it was almost bordering extortion, attempted influence of [a] public official," Maketa told Crank.

But since then, Maketa has not nailed down his claim. As the Denver Post put it, "the sheriff has not produced proof of such an attempt at coercion. The head of Maketa's own lobbying group said he did not intend to convey any such threats to Maketa."

Speaking with the Independent, Morse says the allegation is simply unfounded. And to go on the radio with scant evidence?

"From a law enforcement perspective, you don't ever do that," says Morse, a former police chief. "You make sure [an allegation] is credible and that it can withstand the attacks in court."

Then, last Wednesday, Maketa joined county commissioners Peggy Littleton, Amy Lathen and Dennis Hisey for a town hall discussion about the gun bills. During the two-hour event, Maketa fielded questions from a public whose support became obvious even months ago, when he won approval of a modest tax increase for his office.

Maketa was in his element, speaking directly with some of those in the audience and at one point impersonating Morse. When asked by a number of attendees about his future, he denied having state-level aspirations, but added the caveat, "I say that knowing full well things could change."

Little room for nuance

Maketa did tell the crowd that he will "have to support" any law passed "through a lawful process" and signed by Gov. John Hickenlooper, to protect the county from liability. But he followed that up by coyly pointing out what he sees as a flaw in one bill currently on the governor's desk: "This high-capacity magazine issue? I don't know when you bought it. You see what I'm saying?" The crowd applauded passionately.

Speaking with the Independent later, Maketa more soberly explains that even if a person possesses a 30-round magazine after the law is enacted July 1, that won't give law enforcement reasonable suspicion to question that person. "I see it," says Maketa, "but it's not distinguishable between pre-July 1 or after July 1."

As for the domestic violence measure in the House, Maketa says it's overly broad and strips those simply accused of a crime of their due process. It would allow a court to force an individual to "relinquish any firearm or ammunition within 24 hours," if that person is served a "protection order to prevent domestic violence." Essentially, Maketa says, the courts would force a suspect to collect all his or her weapons, likely from home, while emotions are still running high.

From where he sits, Joshua Dunn, an associate professor of political science at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs, sees nothing wrong with Maketa opposing these bills: "I think it would be very difficult for a sheriff not to have an opinion on this, and not give an opinion."

But, he adds, Maketa's crusade against Morse has overtaken the conversation.

"It distracts from his other critique that he thinks that these laws will be ineffective and perhaps even harmful," Dunn says. "By creating this political sideshow, it takes away from what I think is his most important concern."

Unless, Morse notes, Maketa's current concerns are mostly political.

"He's purely playing politics; he's not being a guardian of public safety in any way, shape or form," Morse says. He adds that opposition to these "common sense" measures "doesn't play to most Republicans, hardly any independents, and next-to-no Democrats, but it does play to this very small group of people who believe that the Second Amendment means that there can never be a law anywhere with the word 'gun' in it."

As for that criticism? Maketa says it "is insulting to the citizens, the thousands that have responded to me," before taking another swipe at Morse's political standing.

"This is a very diverse crowd," he says, "and I think it shows how further disconnected he is from his electorate."

chet@csindy.com

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