It takes all kinds, this argument over guns in America. Patriots and paranoids, cranks and constitutionalists, handwringers and Huns, they all step up to the plate sooner or later. The debate is rarely polite, often incoherent and generally clouded by suspicion, fear and rancor.
But it takes something special to reach the kind of bizarre denouement that played out in a Jefferson County courtroom last week, when a gun activist admitted to e-mailing death threats to a Columbine parent in the name of another gun activist — because, see, he believed his life had been threatened by the other activist, and he wanted to see the man arrested.
Makes sense? No? Then you haven't met Darren Morrison.
Morrison, 44, is a Navy veteran and was, until recently, a custodian at Colorado State University. He ran unsuccessfully for Angie Paccione's seat in the state legislature last year as a self-proclaimed independent, pro-gun, anti-immigration, anti-abortion, born-again Christian. An additional preoccupation, not listed in his campaign biography, appears to be Duncan Philp.
Philp, a prominent gun-rights advocate who lives in Wyoming, posts frequently on Tyranny Response Team (www.trtnational.com) and has been a fixture at antiwar and Second Amendment rights rallies in Fort Collins. Morrison claims that Philp is a "hate monger" and has shouted unpleasant things at him at protests through a megaphone. He thinks he's seen Philp's car idling outside his home. When Morrison was banned from posting on the TRT forum a few months ago, Philp suggested adding Morrison to a list of deceased members: "Poor Darren we knew him well," he wrote. Morrison regarded the jibe as a death threat.
Philp denies ever threatening Morrison. "I don't have the time to drive seventy miles to stalk this guy," he says. "He was sending me all kinds of e-mails taunting me. We were never friends. He found out that a lot of the Tyranny Response Team members are anarchist libertarians, and he equates that with communists."
Last December as the feud heated up, a series of ominous e-mails went out to law enforcement, a local gun group and others, ostensibly from Philp, boasting of his prowess with a .50-caliber handgun. The most disturbing ones came to the inbox of Tom Mauser, who's become an outspoken advocate of tougher gun laws since his son, Daniel, was slain in the 1999 attack on Columbine High School. Philp was involved in a protest outside Mauser's home in 2001 and collected $20,000 in a lawsuit over police harassment stemming from the incident ("Deeper Into Columbine," October 31, 2002).
"I have a laser site on my 50 cal as well as a home made silencer," one typo-riddled missive read. "I have spotted planes fling into DIA. I could easly shoot one down so do not take any trips for a while."
Mauser was understandably alarmed. "I get this stuff a lot, but this one really did cross the line," he says. He contacted the authorities.
The threat came to the attention of the director of the FBI, and the Denver airport went to a heightened state of security for a brief time. A few days later, in a parking lot on the campus of a Cheyenne community college where he was taking classes, Philp was confronted by six sheriff's deputies, three FBI agents and four campus security guards. Some of the officers had guns drawn, Philp says, leading to a shouting match between him and the federal agents.
"I just got fed up with this nonsense," he says. "I've put up with it for fifteen years."
Questioned about the e-mails, Philp admitted some familiarity with .50-caliber weaponry — enough to know that shooting down an airplane with a handgun isn't an option. He pointed out that the atrocious spelling and grammar were similar to that found in messages he'd received from Morrison. In online postings, Morrison has acknowledged having dyslexia; he's also written of the "rabid" growth of the TRT and to receiving "treats," not threats, from Philp.
Morrison later admitted to a reporter from CSU's Rocky Mountain Collegian that he'd sent the e-mails. He wrote a letter of apology to Mauser and pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge of harassment. At Morrison's sentencing two weeks ago, Mauser testified about the strain the threats caused to his family during the Christmas season.
"My wife was very disturbed," he said. "He's playing with people's lives. Mr. Philp has engaged in some unsavory activities toward me over the years, but he didn't deserve to be targeted like this, either."
A tearful Morrison apologized again while insisting that he had reason to fear Philp. "I wasn't sure he wasn't going to try to kill me," he said. "I got sucked into the fight...What I did was inexcusable. I beat myself up all the time for what I did...I've never done anything like this. I just didn't think this through."
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Philp suspects that Morrison is behind other threatening e-mails he's received in recent months, a charge Morrison has denied. Philp wanted the judge to order some jail time as well as a psychological evaluation. "He's cost the system an awful lot of money," he said.
Jefferson County Judge Judy Archuleta slapped Morrison with a year's probation, five days in jail and a ban on any future communication, electronic or otherwise, with the Mauser family. "It sounds like everybody's running scared of each other," she said.
After the hearing, Mauser expressed surprise that the judge didn't ban Morrison from using the Internet altogether. "The message has to get out that you can't do this kind of thing without consequences," he said. "One of the lessons we learned from Columbine is that people who commit violence often signal their violence first."