Fire Away

Ask John Bray if Denver's gun laws are too strict.

Last Friday, John Bray landed on the ground outside our office, a bullet in his chest.

On Saturday, his killing landed on the front pages of both dailies, already labeled "road rage" -- the first such deadly instance in Denver.

But by Sunday, Bray's death rated just an inside mention in the Rocky Mountain News, and disappeared altogether from the Denver Post.

In our spectacularly tragedy-ridden state, there's no shortage of victims deserving tears and ink; the media can pick and choose the most appealing subjects. And while the faddish notion of road rage was a guaranteed headline-grabber a few years ago -- even inspiring such homegrown knockoffs as "ski rage" -- that was before two teens went on a rampage at Columbine High School, and our greatest terror became not the stranger in the next car, but the strangers in our own homes.

And so John Bray's moment in the media spotlight faded faster than his blood alongside Broadway.

No anonymous highway, Broadway is a major artery that channels a never-ending flow of horn-honking, lane-switching, light-beating traffic through a string of Denver neighborhoods, including the Golden Triangle. Just off work at a temporary job, the 32-year-old Bray was pedaling down the 900 block of Broadway when he got into an ugly altercation with a fellow driving an old pickup truck down the same stretch. The fight grew rough enough that, just short of Ninth Avenue, 52-year-old James Hall got out of his truck, pulled a handgun from behind the seat and fired at Bray.

As Bray went down, Hall drove away. An hour and a half later, a police officer found a truck in north Denver that matched witnesses' descriptions, and arrested Hall.

At almost that same moment, Bray was pronounced dead at Denver Health Medical Center.

There's "no rhyme or reason for this," said Denver Police Department spokeswoman Virginia Lopez.

No rhyme, perhaps, but certainly a reason: Hall had a gun in his truck, and he used it.

In Denver, with very few exceptions, it is illegal to carry a gun in a car. For now, at least.

The city ordinance that bans guns in cars -- unless they're locked in trunks or, in the case of a pickup, in a storage box -- was originally designed to stem the flow of blood from gang violence, the sort that erupted a few hours later Friday night, when three teens were shot on Federal Boulevard during the Cinco de Mayo cruising along that major artery. "There was a good reason why Denver had the ordinance it had, and why it was strictly enforced," says Denver District Attorney Bill Ritter. But gun proponents, most notably the National Rifle Association, complained that the ordinance interfered with not just their Second Amendment rights, but also their right to avoid search and seizure. Carrying a gun into Denver, they argued, could not only earn a driver a stint in jail, but could cost him his car.

Although such forfeitures are rare (the NRA keeps trotting out the same security guard who lost his car for sixty days after being stopped on Broadway, of all places), the NRA's argument found fans among Colorado's rural legislators, who were particularly concerned that hunters be able to reach their prey.

But Hall didn't even have to leave the city to bag a bicyclist.

It doesn't matter, of course, that Hall had a relatively clean record (a single 1989 charge of interference), and Bray a rather lengthy one (but minor, points out DPD spokesman Tony Lombard), which includes brandishing a weapon back in 1987 -- and a knife at that, hardly a common bicycle accessory. It doesn't matter, of course, how aggressively Bray might have been riding that bicycle, or how ugly the invective he might have hurled at Hall. Whatever words Bray used that day, they weren't as deadly as a bullet.

No matter what Bray did or didn't do last Friday afternoon, he shouldn't have been shot, shouldn't have landed on the ground outside our office, shouldn't have died two hours later.

Because Hall shouldn't have had that gun.

Currently awaiting Governor Bill Owens's signature is Senate Bill 154, the result of a heated, NRA-fueled drive this legislative session to ban Colorado municipalities from passing their own laws governing firearms. In particular, the NRA had Denver in its sights because of the city's ban on driving around town while armed; as originally proposed, the bill would have voided that law. After a hard-fought battle, the state, city, legislators and gun lobbyists came up with a compromise: If Owens signs SB 154, it will no longer be a crime for someone to drive into Denver with a gun in his car. "We took an enormous step backward," says DA Ritter. "That was a fallback position."

"If it was up to the legislature, people could carry guns into churches," says Andrew Hudson, spokesman for Mayor Wellington Webb. "The legislators' anti-Denver agenda is never clearer than when they go after our gun laws."

But at least Denver has gun laws. This was the year that the state, too, was finally going to get tough on guns, the legislative session when lawmakers were going to respond not just to the horrors of Columbine, but the demands of the 10,000 citizens who protested at the Capitol exactly a year ago, demanding gun control as NRA president Charlton Heston addressed his troops at their national meeting just a few blocks away. From his emotional speech on the Capitol steps that day, Tom Mauser, the father of slain student Daniel, went on to become a national spokesman for sanity governing gun laws, a driving force behind the SAFE Colorado initiative that will allow voters to decide whether all firearms sales at gun shows should require background checks.

Just up the steps and inside the Capitol, though, the performances have been much less courageous. Not only did legislators kill a measure that would have made SAFE's initiative unnecessary, but they've sent two more get-soft-on-guns measures to Owens.

In addition to SB 154, there's the ludicrous provision that would keep private the names of those brave citizens granted concealed-carry permits in this state. Also ready for Owens's approval is House Bill 1208, which would prohibit anyone in the state from filing a negligence suit against the gun industry. Not that any such suits have been seen in Colorado (although thirty have been filed across the country, except in the fourteen states that have already banned them). Last year Owens declined to sign a similar bill -- but Attorney General Ken Salazar had already determined that the 1999 measure's wording was unconstitutional, since it specifically banned home-rule cities such as Denver from filing suits. (The gun lobby has since fixed that glitch.) And last year, the sounds of the gunfire at Columbine were echoing across Colorado.

Thirteen months later, we still hear them -- but now they merely disturb our conscience, rather than call it to action.

Bray learned this lesson the hard way.

Hall has admitted shooting the bicyclist, according to court documents. At any moment, the Denver DA's office will be filing first-degree murder charges against him.

But before that gun was fired, another law was broken. And the blood, like the traffic, flows on.

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