Recall efforts highlight split among Colorado gun owners

Clashing views as two Democratic state senators face costly recalls one year shy of ending their terms

A sign at Paradise Firearms in Colorado Springs, Colo., invites customers to sign a recall petition against Democratic State Senate President John Morse.
Ed Andrieski/AP

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. — Patsy Bjork was 25 when her mother died.

"She was murdered with a gun by her boyfriend, who had had many guns taken away … and kept buying more guns," said Bjork, now 52.

So this spring, when a man showed up at her door to ask her to sign a petition to recall her state senator for supporting tougher gun laws, she wasn't supportive.

"The only thing he wanted to talk about was the gun issue," she said. "I'm probably not one you're going to convince, because my mother was murdered with a gun and we need to make changes."

A year after a dozen people died and some 70 were injured in a mass shooting at an Aurora, Colo., movie theater, Colorado gun laws are at the heart of two recall battles. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee, called it the "worst election you've never heard of."

Bjork is featured in a flier in support of one of the senators being recalled. State Senate President John Morse of Colorado Springs and Angela Giron of Pueblo face Sept. 10 elections, the first state-level recalls in Colorado history. Critics of the recall elections say the $230,000 price tag is a waste of taxpayer money because next year Morse would be term-limited out of office and Giron would be up for re-election anyway. Recall attempts for state Sen. Evie Hudak of Westminster, which needed more than 18,000 signatures, and state Rep. Mike McLachlan of Durango, which needed more than 10,000 signatures, failed to make the ballot.

Morse and Giron were among many proponents of tougher gun laws in the recent legislative session, dominated by Democrats. On July 1, magazines holding more than 15 bullets were banned in Colorado, and background checks are now required on all gun sales in the state, including those between individuals.

Philosophies collide

Walk the streets of Pueblo or Colorado Springs and you'll learn that gun ownership isn't rare -- but opinions about gun regulation, Morse and Giron are pretty diverse.

On a recent Saturday morning, Trisha Palmer pushed her twins in a stroller through the Hotrod Ho-Down in the parking lot at Southside Johnny's tavern downtown. Classic cars were lined up in the lot, rockabilly music blared, and Palmer had a bit of a pinup-girl look, with a red ribbon in her blond hair.

Palmer, 44, said she finds the recall effort "ridiculous" and the new gun laws no affront to anyone’s liberties. "I'm like, what's the big deal?"

But she also said she's one of the 30,120 people in Colorado Springs (population: about 432,000) who have a permit to carry a concealed gun.

"There's nothing in liberal philosophy that says you can't own a gun or that guns are bad," she said. "There's no reason I would need an assault weapon to kill an intruder in my home when hollow-points and my .32 do just as well."

Even Morse, a former police chief of nearby Fountain, owns a gun -- a Walther PPK .380.

Compared with Giron's district in Pueblo, where 45 percent of voters are Democrats and 23 percent are Republicans, Morse's district has a more balanced mix. Nearly 40 percent of voters there are unaffiliated, with 33 percent Democrats and 25 percent Republicans.

Morse's district includes the neighborhood that had the highest rate of gun deaths in the state between 2000 and 2011, according to a recent investigation by I-News Network.

Less than a mile west of that census tract, Rob Harris stood at the corner of South Circle Drive and East Fountain Boulevard wearing a neon-green safety vest and twirling a sign that read "Recall Morse" on one side and "Vote yes" on the other.

"He went after law-abiding gun owners," Harris, 51, said of Morse. "It's cost Colorado millions of dollars and jobs. It has no impact."

Ask Don Duley, however, and he’ll tell you the new magazine limits definitely have an impact. He sat recently behind a table of magazines -- 15 rounds or under -- working for one of the exhibitors at the Sertoma Gun Show. The show had a family atmosphere, with scented candles, concealed-carry purses and handmade jewelry also for sale.

Duley said some guns can no longer be sold because they require magazines of more than 15 rounds. "It's like selling a car without a gas tank," he said.

But the effect on crime, he said, is negligible.

"It's the example of trying to stop drunk driving by selling those little bottles of alcohol," said Duley.

Colorado Springs and Pueblo are connected by Interstate 25, which traverses Colorado from north to south. In El Paso County, where Colorado Springs is the major city, the interstate is named the Ronald Reagan Highway. Cross into Pueblo County and there's a sign noting the John F. Kennedy Highway.

Gary Johnson, owner of Johnson's Sport & Ski on Court Street in Pueblo, motioned to a stack of small boxes on the wall behind a display case. The boxes contained now illegal magazines.

"I've got a few thousand dollars in inventory," he said. "Hopefully I'll find another dealer in another state I can send it to."

What good are the larger magazines? "It's just more convenient when we go to the range to load a 30-round magazine than to take three 10-round magazines and continually reload it," Johnson said.

On the counter sat a plastic box for donations to recall Giron.

"We're hoping that people will vote to recall her and Mr. Morse and they will replace them with someone who will listen to their constituents," Johnson said.

Unfounded fear?

Several blocks away, near the city's Riverwalk, Shirley Knight volunteered at the Steel City Art Works cooperative. A painter, Knight said she's "on both sides of the issue."

"I've got a concealed-weapons permit. I took tactical training. I've got an assault weapon. I'm a gun owner," she said. "On the other hand, I'm a friend of Giron. I think she's been a very good senator … She did the right thing. We should have responsible gun control."

Knight said she believes fear is driving the recall process -- fear that the government will confiscate guns.

"It ain't going to happen here," she said. "I think the gun owners have been very vocal. But I think the majority of people here in Pueblo have common sense, and she won’t be recalled."

A successful court challenge means the recall won't feature all-mail balloting, and challengers have until Aug. 26 to file petitions to get onto the Sept. 10 ballot. 

"It's really hard to know who's going to show up for a September election in an odd-numbered year," said Seth Masket, an associate professor of political science at the University of Denver. "My guess is they will actually have very small turnout."

That was Morse's message as he sent volunteers off to canvass Saturday morning.

"They're going to have 10,000 votes. We're going to have 10,000 votes," Morse said. "Our goal is to have 10,150."

On Aug. 10, in the northeast corner of Morse's district, two people were found shot to death in an alley, the 20th and 21st homicides of the year in Colorado Springs. Another person was shot and killed at a bar Sunday morning, marking the year's 22nd homicide (17 were gun deaths), matching the total number of homicides in 2012.

For Bjork, such gun deaths justify the tougher laws supported by Morse and Giron.

"A lot of these people who kill their wives or their girlfriends, they weren't criminals before that," she said. "We'll never be able to stop it all, but that doesn't mean we can't take steps."

Related News

Gun Laws

Find Al Jazeera America on your TV

Get email updates from Al Jazeera America

Sign up for our weekly newsletter


Gun Laws

Get email updates from Al Jazeera America

Sign up for our weekly newsletter