In a case of campaign promises being fulfilled, the El Paso County Board of Commissioners is considering a proposal to enable people to openly pack heat in government-owned buildings.
All five elected members of the county commission are members of the Pikes Peak Firearms Coalition -- the gun-rights group that initiated the recent debate -- and it's likely that being able to openly carry firearms will soon be allowed in at least some areas of county administration.
"We have the votes to completely eliminate the policy," said coalition president Bernie Herpin of the current ban that prohibits the public from walking into county-owned buildings plainly displaying guns. "But that's not our objective." Rather, Herpin said, the group is working with Sheriff Terry Maketa on a proposal to allow only holstered handguns into buildings. The buildings affected would likely include the county office building at 37 E. Vermijo, the county Professional Building at 27 E. Vermijo and Centennial Hall at 200 S. Cascade -- all in downtown Colorado Springs.
The business end of an AK-47
The board will take up the matter for discussion on March 14. And not all employees are thrilled with the prospect.
"I have no intention of allowing an atmosphere where my employees are afraid," said County Assessor John Bass. Bass -- an elected Republican -- said he worries that his office, where accountants, realtors and brokers discuss financial matters, could be targeted by citizens who become angry about their taxes.
State law allows people to carry concealed guns in county buildings, but obtaining a permit to do so requires fingerprinting and a thorough background check. People who openly display their weapons, on the other hand, are required to undergo a background check when purchasing firearms. Many counties along the Front Range outlaw people from walking into county buildings with a sidearm strapped to their hip. Two years ago the City Council banned openly carrying guns at City Hall after Colorado Springs resident Don Ortega began carrying a shotgun to their meetings. The resulting mayhem scared people off from attending council meetings.
Earlier this month, Bass sent an e-mail to approximately 2,000 county employees in which he shared the following anecdote: In 1999 -- his first year in office -- properties were re-appraised for tax purposes. At the time, real estate values were skyrocketing 1 or 2 percent a month. One angry property owner called him up and threatened to show him "what the business end of an AK-47 looks like" before hanging up.
Theater of the absurd
Bass received 30 responses from county employees thanking him for taking a stand, and none directly challenged his opinion. But after Bass sent his e-mail, the Board of County Commissioners instructed the director of Information Technology to restrict employees from being able to directly respond to such office-wide messages, citing potential waste of county resources.
Bass also expressed frustration that commissioners are spending time debating the gun issue instead of more pressing matters, such as economic development and the troubled prison system. "Of all the things we need to be focused on," he said, "for this to rear its head, the Board of County Commissioners has become theater of the absurd."
Bass says that if the ban on openly displaying firearms -- which was implemented in 1996 after a gun confrontation in the assessor's office -- is repealed, he will immediately post no-guns-allowed signs outside his office. He said the commissioners have no right to dictate gun policy in his office.
Sheriff Maketa, who is a member of the firearms coalition and has been working with them to craft a proposal, said that Bass' office and other specific areas -- such as the clerk and recorder's and treasurer's office -- will likely remain off limits for people with guns strapped to their hips.
"The individual elected officer should have discretion over their individual areas," Maketa said, adding that there would be "obviously no weapons in detention facilities or courts."
Criminals don't care
Bernie Herpin, the firearms coalition president, says there's a bigger issue at stake: the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. The debate over whether people should be able to carry guns inside of county office buildings was launched during last fall's election, when board candidates were asked their position. Douglas Bruce and Dennis Hisey -- who won the seats -- vowed to fully support the idea. Sallie Clark, who also won office, also endorsed the ability to carry guns, with limitations recommended by the sheriff. Sitting Commissioners Jim Bensberg and Wayne Williams -- who did not return calls seeking comment -- can also be expected to support the repeal, Herpin said.
With what looks like an eventual victory for the firearms coalition, Herpin downplayed safety concerns. "A person who wants to commit a crime doesn't care what the sign says," he said. "If he wants to shoot and kill a commissioner, he's going to go ahead and do it."
For his part, Hisey said he'll uphold his campaign pledge because "it protects one of the rights we're given in the Second Amendment." But, he added, he will not object if some elected officials put their offices off limits to openly gun-packing citizens. "I don't mind them carrying a gun strapped to their hip to my office or a board meeting," he said.
Bruce, who also supports the repeal, joked about how to attract concerned county officials to the gun discussion next month. "Offer them free ammunition at the next board meeting," he said. Looking forward to the debate, he quipped, "Wear your bullet proof vests."
-- Dan Wilcock