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.
How legitimate is Silva's shot at winning in November? The former deputy, who also ran for sheriff in 1994, says he has a great chance to unseat incumbent Riecke Claussen, even though Claussen beat him four years ago with 54 percent of the vote.
"I think last time I just peaked too early," says Silva, adding that he also ran out of campaign cash a couple of weeks before the election. He says he has higher hopes this time around because of the donations he expects to pour in from around the state and the nation. Even the religious right may chip in: Silva says he recently met with a group of 75 local members of the Christian Coalition and found them receptive to his plan. "They were really glad to hear what I was saying," Silva says. "They said they'd be willing to help me with contributions and whatnot."
Claussen vows to give Silva a run for his money, though he doesn't expect to raise as much dough himself. And he says he's not afraid to face Silva on the concealed-weapon issue. Claussen has a lifetime membership in the NRA and hasn't exactly been shy about issuing permits himself. So far he's given out about 75 permits to county residents, many of them women who want a handgun for protection. But he says issuing any more would "go against the ideas of responsible gun ownership."
Claussen says he takes Silva seriously, and he doesn't have to look far for a reminder of how incumbent lawmen can be beat to the draw by pro-gun candidates. Claussen's chief of operations is Bill Gardner, who for eight years was a highly regarded sheriff in La Plata County. In 1994 Gardner faced opposition from Bayfield town marshal Duke Schirard, who promised to liberalize the granting of concealed-weapon permits.
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Gardner says several people offered him campaign contributions in exchange for the promise of a permit. "If I said no, they said they were going to give the money to the other guy," he adds. Gardner refused--and then watched Schirard rake in $42,000, more than triple the amount ever before spent on a sheriff's race in that county. "It's an emotional issue, and it certainly draws a lot of money," Gardner says.
And in La Plata County, the money got results. After flooding the local media with advertisements, Schirard beat Gardner with 57 percent of the vote. After his election, he handed out so many permits that more than 400 county residents are now licensed to carry, making La Plata second in the state behind El Paso County in the number of permits issued.
Schirard openly acknowledges that some of those permits went to big campaign contributors. He says several people from outside the county also offered to give him money before the last election if he'd agree to give them a permit. However, he says that, even for him, crossing county lines goes too far. "There are those special-interest people who live and breathe this issue, but I just don't agree with that," he notes. "Nobody knows the citizens like the local sheriff, and I think they ought to have the final say."
But Bob Silva disagrees. "If they meet my code, I think anyone in the state should get a permit," says the candidate, who's already planning campaign stops at Colorado gun shows. "Why not?