When a Colorado Springs resident sees a distraught neighbor cradling an AR-15 and calls the police, the dispatcher says there’s no law being broken — until there is.
What do you do if you see a neighbor walking down the street carrying a rifle, looking, well, distraught?
You don’t know his name, but you’ve seen him more than a few times and he looks somehow different. Plus, he’s carrying a rifle in broad daylight and you think you ought to report that to someone.
If you call 911, as Naomi Bettis did, this is what you’d hear from the Colorado Springs dispatcher, according to Bettis: That Colorado, like the great majority of states, has an open-carry law that allows even distraught-looking people to walk down the street cradling an AR-15, unless, that is, they start to do something illegal with the gun. (The law is different in Denver, but that’s another story.)
The Colorado Springs police know the law because a few years ago they arrested a man for open-carrying in a park, which used to be illegal, but not since 2003. The man sued, and the city settled for $23,500.
And so, the law was explained to the concerned caller. The distraught-looking man with the gun had apparently done nothing wrong to that point. He hadn’t menaced anyone. He hadn’t pointed the gun at anyone. But soon after the call, 33-year-old Noah Harpham, carrying an AR-15 and a revolver, wordlessly shot and killed a man on a bicycle who, witnesses said, begged the shooter not to kill him. Harpham then calmly walked down the Colorado Springs streets near downtown until he shot and killed two more people. When the police arrived, they killed him in a shootout as dozens looked on.
It’s another mass shooting in Colorado, which, by now, can’t surprise anyone.
That the shooter had posted a mostly incoherent blog just days before about religion and mind control and asking whether his father belonged to a Satanic cult can’t surprise anyone.
That he was a recovering alcoholic who had access to guns also can’t surprise anyone.
But that it’s perfectly legal to walk down a city street carrying an AR-15? I know that I’ve got it wrong, but I keep thinking that if people knew that was legal they’d want to do something about it. Do Coloradans really want people walking with a loaded gun in plain view in their neighborhoods?
Well, it is legal. And we’ve all heard the stories, so everyone must know. And yet, I still find myself surprised every time I hear about open carry because it makes even less sense to me than guns on campus. These are laws that are on the books just because they can be.
Sometimes the stories make the news because the gun-rights people want to remind us that they can take their guns to, say, Starbucks. There was that Obama rally in Phoenix where the men walked outside with their guns as if to say, well, you know what they were saying. And, of course, there was the man at the Atlanta airport who carried a semi-automatic rifle because he could. Asked why he had the gun, he said he had it for protection — from the government. Cops at the airport had, in fact, questioned him, but it was all perfectly legal in Georgia so long as he stayed away from those places under TSA control.
In the predictable parts of the blogosphere, they’re now asking whether the open-carry laws possibly prevented police from checking on the shooter before he had the chance to kill anyone. Of course, we don’t know yet what the cops did. We do know what the killer did.
Naomi Bettis, the woman who called 911 before the shootings, told The Denver Post that the gunman “did have a distraught look on his face. It looked like he had a rough couple of days or so.”
And then she heard the confrontation between Harpham and the cyclist, 35-year-old Andrew Myers, who called out, according to Bettis, “Don’t shoot me. Don’t shoot me.”
It must have been shocking to those who saw it, but it can’t be shocking to anyone else. After the Umpqua Community College shootings, we read, via Shooting Tracker, that there had been a mass shooting — meaning an event in which four or more people are injured – in every week of the Obama presidency. And that didn’t seem to shock anyone either.
At the time, Obama had answered those who would say he was politicizing the Oregon massacre by saying it should be politicized, saying it’s a political decision we make to allow these shootings to happen every few months.
That was a month ago. The Colorado Springs killings didn’t happen in a movie theater or on a college campus or involve first-graders. They didn’t happen on a military base or in a high school. They happened as a killer walked down city streets with a loaded gun, in the same city where a state senator had been recalled for helping to pass, in the aftermath of Aurora, a few sensible gun laws.
Mike Littwin is a columnist for the Colorado Independent online news site.