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Colorado embodies nation's divide over gun control

Colorado embodies nation's divide over gun control
People are escorted away from a deadly shooting Nov. 27 at a Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado Springs, Colo. (Daniel Owen / The (Colorado Springs) Gazette)

In this slice of the Rocky Mountains, bloodshed has arrived yet again, renewing passionate debate over whether gun control makes a community safer or places it more at risk.

While mass shootings have become more common all across the country, in Colorado, home to Columbine High School, the Aurora movie theater and, now, a targeted Planned Parenthood clinic, the events resonate with profound power. And in a state neatly divided among Democrats, Republicans and unaffiliated voters, no one side in the gun debate prevails for long.

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Time and again in the wake of these shootings, Democrats demand tougher gun laws, while Republicans call reforms unnecessary and unlikely to stop violence.

"There's no reason this should continue to happen," Tom Sullivan said of Friday's violence that left a police officer, Garrett Swasey, and two civilians dead after a gunman opened fire in a Planned Parenthood office here. Sullivan's son, Alex, was killed three years ago in the theater shooting on what was his 27th birthday. "People who should not have guns walking around with guns shooting people. Why? Because they're mad?"

Sullivan works with groups including Mayors Against Illegal Guns and Everytown for Gun Safety in calling for stricter gun laws nationwide.

In the months after the theater shooting, he helped Colorado lawmakers, mostly Democrats, push for new laws to impose 15-round limits on ammunition magazines and universal background checks on all gun sales and transfers.

At the time, the debate over the gun bills was so contentious that legislative committee rooms were often filled to capacity. Added security was provided to lawmakers in and around the Capitol.

The legislation became law, but in yet another sign of Colorado's divided nature over guns, it also led to the ouster of two lawmakers that year, state Sens. John Morse of Colorado Springs and Angela Giron of Pueblo, in recall elections. A third state lawmaker chose to resign rather than face a recall election. All three are Democrats.

Laura Carno, a conservative activist from Colorado Springs who led the charge to recall Morse, wants to see a repeal of the state's new gun laws.

"They don't make anyone safer," said Carno, citing the Planned Parenthood attack and a separate incident last month in which a man fatally shot three people in Colorado Springs' downtown corridor.

"These gun laws don't keep guns out of the hands of criminals, because they're criminals. … All they do is keep me from being able to buy the firearm of my choice," she said.

On Saturday, law enforcement officials were still in search of a motive behind the rampage at Planned Parenthood, noting it could take several weeks before the investigation is complete. The Associated Press, quoting an unnamed official Saturday night, reported that Robert Lewis Dear, who surrendered to police, said "no more baby parts" after his arrest.

Police said Dear, 57, had carried a rifle but would not provide further details or say whether the weapon would have been illegal under the state's new gun laws.

President Obama, in what's become a refrain after a shooting, called for more gun-control laws.

"This is not normal," Obama said in a statement Saturday. "We can't let it become normal. If we truly care about this … we have to do something about the easy accessibility of weapons of war on our streets."

While Colorado lawmakers for the most part avoided blunt talk about gun control, Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper and Republican Mayor John Suthers of Colorado Springs did stand side by side at a news conference Saturday, vowing not to utter the suspected gunman's name in public.

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But in the past the two men have split over the issue of gun control. Hickenlooper was a staunch supporter of the new gun laws, while Suthers, who recently ended an eight-year term as state attorney general, opposed the measures.

When asked Saturday how he continues to deal with shootings in his state, Hickenlooper said the key is to persevere — and that discussions about preventing more bloodshed can come later.

"We will continue," he said. "This is going to be our entire country, trying to figure out how do we address issues around violence in our community. And the key here is I don't think this is the time to have that discussion."

In 1999, Columbine High School, in a sleepy suburb of Denver, opened America's eyes to the horrors of a mass shooting when 12 students and one educator were killed. And three years ago, in Aurora, a suburb less than 20 miles from the high school, moviegoers watched as a dozen people were slaughtered at a midnight premiere of a Batman film.

Each of those events brought added pressure to law enforcement and for their family members, including Donovan Ford.

Ford's father, John Ford, is a 25-year veteran of the Colorado Springs Police Department and was one of five officers injured in the Planned Parenthood siege.

Donovan Ford, like many in the state, chose to focus on the victims of Friday's shooting and the officers who rushed to the scene knowing a gunman was loose. He recently joined the Minneapolis Police Department and said he received a phone call Friday that he's always dreaded.

"When you have a parent in law enforcement, you never know if they're going to come home. I'm lucky my dad will be OK. It's just all-around terrible."

Twitter: @kurtisalee

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