Where Colorado’s School Safety Debate Stands Ahead Of National March For Our Lives

<p>(Rachel Ramberg/CPR News)</p>
<p>East High School students walk outside for their National Student Walkout rally in Denver on Wednesday, March 14, 2018.</p>
Photo: National Student Walkout 1 | Keep us safe sign
East High School students walk outside for their National Student Walkout rally in Denver on Wednesday, March 14, 2018.

As Denver, Colorado Springs, Grand Junction and other Colorado cities prepare for Saturday’s national student-led March for Our Lives protests against gun violence, a new poll from the Associated Press finds 7 in 10 adults favor stricter gun control measures.

The poll also found that a majority of gun owners and half of Republicans favor new laws to address gun violence. More than 8 in 10 Americans favor a federal law preventing mentally ill people from purchasing guns. But almost half of Americans expect no action from elected officials on the matter.

D.C. march organizers say more than 800 “sibling” events will take place all over the world. In Denver, where the state’s largest number are expected, the event starts officially at 2 p.m. in Civic Center Park. The march will wind through downtown and finish at the state Capitol.

Among the speakers Saturday in Denver will be Tom Mauser, whose son Daniel was killed in the Columbine High School shooting in 1999; and Marcus Weaver, who survived 2012 the Aurora theater shooting.

“I don’t want other people to go through what I’ve gone through,” Tom Mauser said ahead of the protest. “I am still marching for Daniel. I feel that I’m doing what he would want me to do. I feel like I’m walking in his place.”

“Daniel was a member of the debate team,” his father said. “He was a very shy kid and yet he got up in front of other people and spoke his mind and I feel like he’s empowered me to do the same thing.”

As Mauser sees high school students serving as the leaders and catalysts for Saturday’s protest, he’s “feeling an energy here that I frankly have not felt for the past 19 years.”

One of those students, Emmy Adams, a Golden High School senior, said that “after the Parkland massacre, I saw all these other students. They’re standing up and it just reminded me and empowered me to see that I’m not alone in this fight and that’s what pushed me to start working towards making change in the political/legislative side of this issue.”

Photo: Emmy Adams Tom Mauser March For Our Lives Gun Violence
Emmy Adams, a Golden High School senior, and Tom Mauser, whose son Daniel was killed at the Columbine shooting, spoke with CPR News about the intergenerational nature of Saturday's planned March For Our Lives.

For Daniel Mauser and all the other victims, she said “We need to stand up and do what they want us to do and what they would be doing if they were here as well. We have to live lives that they would have dreamed of having.”

Adams grew up doing active shooter drills in school.

“The most memorable one for me was when I was 9 years old in fourth grade. We were hiding in the corner and my fourth grade teacher told me that if the shooter came in — he had these antelope horns hanging in the classroom and he told us that if the shooter came in, to grab them off the wall and stab the shooter in the eyes with them.”

Turning to lawmakers, Adams said “we’re not coming for your guns, we’re coming for your [elected] seats. They need to know that my generation and I are very much planning on being active voters and we will go out and vote not just at the federal level but at the state and local level and if they don’t cooperate with the demands that we were asking to keep us safe then we will vote them out.”

Gun Popularity

While there’s deep passion and emotion among March For Our Lives supporters, the overall picture is more complex, both in Colorado and across the country. A lot of Coloradans and Americans like their guns — and the 2nd Amendment is on their side.

Compared to 10 years ago, gun sales are up 130 percent in Colorado, even though the state’s population grew by about 15 percent in that time. There are about 4 million adults in Colorado now, and a roughly equal number of firearms have been sold in the state since 2001. Of those, handguns are more popular, about 60 percent of sales are for handguns and that’s because of their popularity for self defense and concealed carry.

Nationally, surveys from the Pew Research Center suggest that most gun owners are white, male Republicans who live in rural households. In Colorado, that pattern tends to hold true. It should be noted that of gun deaths in Colorado, 77 percent are suicides.

The NRA and the Rocky Mountain Gun Owners get a lot of attention, but the gun groups aren’t really in the same league as some other big political contributors in Colorado, like oil and gas for example.

On the other side, money is coming in from the pro-gun control group led by Michael Bloomberg. It’s made significant investments in races to protect state lawmakers that were facing recall over 2013 gun control measures signed into law, and in supporting Democrat Mike Johnston, who’s running for governor in 2018.

Differing Voices

While the March for Our Lives and its supporters, including Gov. John Hickenlooper, advocate for tighter rules on gun access, others aren’t so sure. The Rev. Leon Kelly, who has been active in anti-gang efforts in Denver for decades, keeps a list of people murdered in the area since 1988, a number that has grown to more than 1,000. He is appalled by mass shootings, but he doesn’t think gun control is the answer.

“When I hear about the mass shootings, it’s a tragedy. It certainly is crazy. But you know, when I look at the numbers of my young kids who are being killed … it makes me sort of cringe.”

In 2015, 369 people died in mass shootings in the United States. That same year, about 6,000 black men were murdered with guns. And Kelly pointed out that if you include people stabbed to death, or in car crashes, the number climbs much higher.

Kelly’s a member of the National Rifle Association who often carries a gun, and he won’t be marching Saturday.

“I know how it feels to be a helpless victim,” he said. Given the work he does, and where he does it, “I need to at least be in a position to have a choice to be able to protect somebody.”

The Rev. Leon Kelly
The Rev. Leon Kelly in the CPR News studio on Tuesday, May 5, 2015. He runs youth gang alternatives in Denver.

“You could put all the laws in place [but] if we don’t change the mindset of those behind the guns, you know we’re gonna have some problems. You know the bad guys are going to find a way,” he said. And besides, the majority of the kids who get their hands on guns don’t get them legally anyway.

Self-protection is part of the motivation for Laura Carno, who lives in Black Forest, just outside of Colorado Springs. She has advocated for state laws allowing teachers, administrators and staff to carry firearms. Those laws haven’t made it through the Colorado legislature, but a training program, known as FASTER, is available and districts can choose to allow armed teachers with special authorization.

“What the law says is that individuals would need to be authorized by their school board or their charter school board so there is a formal designation process,” she said.

She understands that not everyone is comfortable with the idea of their kids’ teachers carrying guns, but “nobody would ever suggest that anybody should be armed who isn’t.”

In her program, about 40 percent of the participants are teachers. “The rest would be administrators like superintendents and principals and folks like janitors, lunch ladies, lots and lots of folks. So, even though we might use the word teachers as shorthand, it’s everybody throughout the the school.”

“For the most part these are concealed carry holders outside of their work, so they’ve already made that decision” to carry a firearm, Carno said. They want the training because, “Where I am most vulnerable at work, and where there are these children, I can’t even protect them unless I can do this.”

“I am hearing from I’d say hundreds of parents who say ‘I want this in my school’ because they know that the faster a killer is stopped, the better chance their kid has of living,” Carno said.

In terms of the student protests that have preceded the Saturday’s March for Our Lives event, the effort to arm teachers hasn’t been a popular idea. Democratic lawmakers who addressed students on the steps of the Capitol earlier in the month promised to fight those efforts. Paula Reed, a teacher who lived through the Columbine shooting outright rejected it — “no child should ever be shot, especially not in school, especially not by a teacher,” she told the crowd at Jefferson County’s National Walkout Day rally.