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Colorado Springs mayor has no 'appetite for' changing city's open-carry law

November 5, 2015 Updated: November 6, 2015 at 9:45 am
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photo - The rear window of a Colorado Springs Police car is shattered by gun fire in front of the Wendy's restaurant on Wahsatch Avenue in Colorado Springs as police investigate the one of the scenes from a shooting rampage that left three victims dead Saturday morning, Oct. 31, 2015, in Colorado Springs. The shooting began on Prospect Street near Platte Avenue and ended at Wahsatch and Platte avenues where police exchanged gun fire, killing the suspected shooter. (The Gazette, Christian Murdock)
The rear window of a Colorado Springs Police car is shattered by gun fire in front of the Wendy's restaurant on Wahsatch Avenue in Colorado Springs as police investigate the one of the scenes from a shooting rampage that left three victims dead Saturday morning, Oct. 31, 2015, in Colorado Springs. The shooting began on Prospect Street near Platte Avenue and ended at Wahsatch and Platte avenues where police exchanged gun fire, killing the suspected shooter. (The Gazette, Christian Murdock) 

Five days after a rifle-toting assailant stormed a Colorado Springs neighborhood, Mayor John Suthers said he sees no reason to restrict residents' ability to openly carry firearms.

"What your open carry laws are don't dictate what your violent crime rate is," Suthers said.

His comments came as debate swirled about a state law allowing people to openly carry guns in public, and numerous publications scrutinized the Colorado Springs Police Department's initial handling of a 911 call about the gunman on Halloween morning.

At least 10 minutes before Saturday's shooting spree began, a neighbor saw Noah Harpham, 33, carrying a rifle and gas cans outside the house where he lived. He also approached at least one other home, 911 recordings show.

About halfway into the 911 call, the operator referenced Colorado's open carry law.

"Well, it is an open carry state, so he can have a weapon with him or walking around with it," the 911 operator said. "But of course, having those gas cans, it does seem pretty suspicious. So we're going to keep the call going for that."

Officers didn't respond until after the first shots rang out at 8:55 a.m.

The call was first given a priority three status, then upgraded to priority two and filed as a possible burglary, according to Colorado Springs police.

At 8:55 a.m., Harpham gunned down a passing bicyclist, Andrew Alan Myers, 35. Officers were then told to stop what they were doing and respond.

Armed with an AR-15 semi-automatic rifle, a .357 revolver and a 9mm pistol, Harpham continued the rampage. He killed Jennifer Vasquez, 42 and Christy Galella, 35, before dying in a shootout with Colorado Springs police.

On Thursday, the gun control advocacy group Colorado Ceasefire seized on the 911 recordings, calling on lawmakers to pass legislation prohibiting the open carry of firearms.

Too often, the law leaves police "paralyzed" with uncertainty about how to respond to calls for help, said Eileen McCarron, the group's president.

"We just allow anybody to carry anything on our streets," McCarron said.

Suthers called the shootings a "community tragedy - a very, very sad situation."

But Suthers - the state's former attorney general - said the Police Department and the 911 operator appeared to act appropriately, and assigned the proper priority to each call.

He also said banning residents' ability to openly carry firearms would do little for public safety.

"When I look around the country, what the open-carry laws are, are not generally a reflection of what the community's violent crime rates are," Suthers said.

"I personally do not have an appetite for" tightening open carry laws, he added.

In general, Colorado law allows people to openly carry guns almost anywhere in Colorado - though Denver is an outlier. There, openly carrying guns is prohibited, due to a 2003 lawsuit taking aim at legislation mandating that state law supersede conflicting local gun laws.

The Colorado Supreme Court ruled Denver is unique because its law had been on the books since the 1970s and people were at a higher risk of being injured in a shooting due to its population and violent crime rate.

Gauging how often Colorado Springs police respond to calls of people openly carrying guns, however, is difficult, because the department does not keep that data set, according to Lt. Catherine Buckley, a police spokeswoman.

She denied The Gazette's request to interview Police Chief Pete Carey on Thursday.

Still, issues surrounding the law have repeatedly surfaced in Colorado Springs.

Three years ago, a man was wrongly detained and ticketed for openly carrying his .40-caliber pistol at PrideFest in downtown Colorado Springs. Police officials said the officers erred by working off an outdated "cheat sheet" serving as a primer on the city's laws.

The man received a $23,500 settlement after suing the city for unlawful arrest.

In June, the City Attorney's Office issued an advisory to organizers of a motorcycle event underscoring the need to protect people's constitutional rights. It came after a man with a high-capacity 9mm pistol acted belligerent, agitated and apparently unstable during a previous motorcycle gathering, police said. Event organizers wanted to be proactive, and escort gun-toting people from future events, but the city said they couldn't do that.

Police even responded to a different gun-wielding man 90 minutes before Harpham's rampage.

Minutes before sunrise, an employee at a McDonald's downtown, near Wahsatch Avenue and Bijou Street, called police complaining of a drunk person on the patio armed with a gun. Officers were on the way before the three-minute 911 call ended, dispatch recordings show.

It was unclear exactly how the gun was used - the caller only said people saw a revolver, and that it was likely "on his person." The officers recorded the man's name, expecting more calls about him later in the day.

"But it's not dangerous weapon," the officer told a dispatcher, according to a radio recording. The man with the gun in that call was not related to the shootings involving Harpham later that morning, Buckley said.

Colorado police chiefs interviewed by The Gazette say responding to such 911 calls can be incredibly difficult - requiring nuance on the part of dispatchers and officers.

It all boils down to the intent of the person openly carrying that gun, said John Jackson, a past president of the Colorado Association of Chiefs of Police, and the current Greenwood Village police chief.

Asking a 911 dispatcher to interpret and decipher intent over the phone from a caller's third-party view can be difficult, if not impossible.

"Unintended consequences" can follow if those calls aren't given special care, Jackson said.

"You legalize it to be OK to carry a gun - and the hard part of that is it only takes moments to level the barrel of a gun and shoot someone," Jackson said. "So these weapons are there legally. Many people can legally carry them. And sometimes really bad things happen."

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