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Denver-area residents who want--but can't get--a permit to carry a concealed weapon have their sights set on Grand Junction, where they hope a candidate for sheriff will give them the legal right to pack heat.
"There's an awful lot of people in Denver who feel there's a need to carry," says Bob Silva, a former Mesa County sheriff's deputy who's now running for the top job. "I think those people should be able to get a permit." And if Silva's elected, he'll be in a position to give them one.
Under current Colorado law, a sheriff can give a concealed-weapon permit to any resident of the state. (Coloradans have the legal right to carry a gun as long as it's in full view, though some cities impose further restrictions.) Traditionally, conceal-carry permits have gone only to people who live within a sheriff's or a police chief's jurisdiction. According to Boulder County sheriff George Epp, who sits on the board of County Sheriffs of Colorado, there have been isolated incidents of permits being issued to outsiders. But no chief or sheriff has ever adopted a policy of issuing permits statewide--at least not one that lasted.
For a two-year period ending this past January, the police chief in the town of Wray was issuing $100 conceal-carry permits to anyone who asked. But because almost nobody outside Wray knew about it, Mark Bowman says he issued fewer than forty permits to non-residents. Then, in January, a small story about his policy appeared in a Larimer County newspaper, and Bowman was swamped with 500 applications in one week.
"The floodgates opened, but the city council didn't like the publicity," the chief recalls. The council ordered Bowman to stop issuing the permits, and he did, but he says his experience showed him there's a lot of pent-up demand in Colorado.
If elected sheriff in Mesa County, Silva says he expects to receive a similar statewide response. And because he'd be elected instead of appointed, no one could tell him to stop.
Boulder's Epp says that while he doesn't like the idea of a sheriff in another jurisdiction issuing permits for residents of his county, legally his hands would be tied. "There's really nothing I can do," he says.
Approximately 6,000 Colorado residents currently hold concealed-weapon permits. About 3,500 live in El Paso County, where Sheriff John Anderson is nationally renowned for his liberal permit policy. But even Anderson refuses to give permits to people who don't live in his county.
Carl Whiteside, director of the Colorado Bureau of Investigation, estimates that at least 15,000 state residents want a concealed-weapon permit but can't get one. However, both pro- and anti-gun forces say the actual number is about twice that. And the biggest chunk of people likely to do business with Silva live in the Denver metro area.
Today only twelve people who live in Denver have a permit to carry a concealed handgun, and most of them work for the city as housing inspectors. But Denver police sergeant Tony Lombard estimates that as many as 5,000 residents would apply for permits if they were easier to come by.
Should Silva be elected on the Western Slope, there would be no legal mechanism preventing Denver residents from heading to Grand Junction for a permit. Anyone who passed a criminal-records check could send in an application, along with the required fee, and be toting a rod under their suit coat in a matter of days. That's music to the ears of people like Ron Phillips, a Littleton resident who hasn't even bothered to apply for a permit from his police chief because he knows practically everyone who applies in Littleton is rejected. (According to a Littleton Police Department spokesman, only one concealed-weapon permit has been issued in that city, to a man who works as a bodyguard.)
Phillips says he'll be an early applicant for a permit in Mesa County if Silva is elected. And he's so excited about the prospect that he even promises to pony up some money to help get Silva into office. "I'll send him a hundred bucks," declares Phillips.
He's not alone. Bill Pittman, chairman of the Firearms Coalition of Colorado, says he's heard about Silva and relishes the prospect of a sheriff who will issue permits statewide. Once he's convinced that Silva will follow through on his promise, he says, he'll put the full weight of his organization behind the man.
"We'll do whatever we can do legally to help him," says Pittman. That would include putting an appeal for Silva campaign contributions in the newsletter that goes out to the 2,000 or so members of his coalition. Pittman's convinced that a large percentage of them will get behind Silva's candidacy and send him a check. "All the people I talk to would be more than willing to donate to his campaign," he says.
Even the National Rifle Association has its eye on Mesa County. Earlier this year, the NRA backed a bill in the state legislature that would have forced all of Colorado's sheriffs to give out permits to qualified citizens. That measure died in the Senate in January--which is why the NRA is now looking closely at Silva. "He could be the only way law-abiding citizens can get a permit to defend themselves outside of their homes," notes Jim Manown, an NRA spokesman in Virginia.