Those who advocate the Open Carry of firearms in public have been telling us for some time that their goal is to "normalize" this behavior. On October 31, we learned the price of treating such threatening and dangerous behavior as normal, and it might have been three human lives.
On Halloween Day, Naomi Bettis of Colorado Springs saw her neighbor across the street walking around with a black rifle, a handgun and two gasoline cans, and she called 911 promptly at 8:45 a.m. Bettis was so unnerved by what she saw that she canceled her own plans to get in her car and leave home. She also reported that the man appeared to have broken the window of a ground-floor business.
The dispatcher's response to Bettis? "Well, it is an open carry state, so he can have a weapon with him or walking around with it, but of course, having those gas cans, it does seem pretty suspicious. So we're going to keep the call going for that." The dispatcher ultimately created a possible burglary in progress call. Colorado Springs police have clarified that a priority 2 level call of this nature describes a situation "with potentially dangerous circumstance but no apparent imminent life threat." No officers were dispatched to the scene.
At 8:56 a.m., Bettis called 911 again. By this time it was too late to prevent tragedy. "Some guy was just riding his bike through the alley and the guy [armed with the rifle] started shooting him," Bettis reported, crying. "[The man who was on the bike is] laying in the driveway ... Please send somebody here." Finally, all available officers and an ambulance were dispatched. Not until several minutes into this second call does Bettis confirm that she can see officers on the scene.
Police confronted the suspect, Noah Harpham, 33, in the street. When he pointed a gun at the officers, they were forced to kill him. He was armed with an AR-15 rifle, a .357 caliber revolver and a 9mm semiautomatic pistol. By the time they brought him down, Harpham had killed three people: bicyclist Andrew Alan Myers, 35; and then Jennifer Vasquez, 42, and Christy Galella, 35.
Bettis was stunned by the lack of response to her first call. She had done her duty as a citizen, and could not understand why officers weren't immediately dispatched during her first 911 call when there was still an opportunity to prevent the loss of innocent life.
Many law enforcement officers were stunned as well. Jacki Kelley, a spokeswoman for the Jefferson County Sheriff's Office in Colorado, demonstrated law enforcement's quandary. "Is this person exercising their rights or about to start a very serious situation in which someone is going to be killed?" she said. "We just don't know the difference." John Jackson, a past president of the Colorado Association of Chiefs of Police, and the current Greenwood Village police chief, 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." Dan Montgomery, who served for 47 years as a police officer, including 25 years as the chief of police of Westminster, Colorado, expressed frustration, stating, "If you've got someone walking down the street and they are holding a rifle in their hands, that requires an emergency response by police. What the hell are they doing with the rifle?"
The situation is not intractable, however. The Colorado state legislature has the ability to repeal the state's Open Carry law so this behavior is now treated with the seriousness it deserves.
The city of Colorado Spring has options as well. Colorado does have an NRA-drafted preemption law in place that restricts the ability of local governments to regulate firearms, but the city of Denver challenged the law, and in 2006 the Colorado Supreme Court ruled that Denver could ban the practice of Open Carry.
Colorado Springs Mayor John Suthers sees no reason to change the city's Open Carry law, however. "What your open carry laws are don't dictate what your violent crime rate is," he said. "I have no appetite" for changing the law, he told Colorado Springs Gazette. Not surprising, given that Suthers has been in the NRA's pocket for some time. "I've had an A rating from the NRA throughout my career," he bragged in March.
That might be true, but should such a tragedy happen in Colorado Springs again, residents will know exactly who to blame for failing to learn Halloween's lesson. The next time a killer uses Colorado's Open Carry law to gain the critical minutes needed to center in on their prey, that blood will be squarely on the hands of Colorado state legislators and municipal leaders who failed to act.