A House Divided: Colorado's Community of Gun Owners
by Ari Armstrong, December 5, 1999
"Every kingdom divided against itself is laid waste,
Once poker buddies, Dudley Brown and Doug Dean, now Executive Director of Rocky Mountain Gun Owners and Colorado House Majority Leader, respectively, are at each others' political throats. Brown has referred to Dean as a "Benedict Arnold," while Dean has tried to pass House rules damaging to RMGO. Aimee Rathburn, Dean's friend in the Colorado State Shooting Association, has called Brown the "Prince of Darkness." (Some names directed at Brown by others are unfit to print.)
Somebody could probably make a fortune selling this story to a television soap opera. But unfortunately, these personal schisms (which have come to involve the author) have already fettered the efforts of Coloradans to pass laws supportive of the right to bear arms. Unless leaders of the pro-gun-owner movement in Colorado can learn to see past their differences and cooperate to mutual advantage, Coloradans may be doomed to see their civil liberties eroded, beginning in the 2000 legislative session.
The Concealed Carry Debacle
The Colorado legislature was on the verge of sending Governor Bill Owens a compromise concealed carry bill in April. Then two depraved criminals murdered thirteen innocent people at Columbine High School in Littleton. Even though liberalized concealed carry laws are proven to reduce mass murders (John Lott, More Guns, Less Crime), the sponsors of the bills pulled them.
Since then, leaders of CSSA and their supporters have been accusing Brown and RMGO of sinking concealed carry in Colorado by insisting on a "no-compromise" bill. In response, Brown has noted that the liberal bill was doing well until Dean and the CSSA leadership publicly denounced it.
Some background information will make the events more understandable. RMGO, headed by Brown, is a major faction of Colorado's pro-gun-owner movement. (According to Brown, RMGO is the largest organization in the state that supports the right to bear arms.) RMGO is friendly with such legislators as Senator Marilyn Musgrave, sponsor of the liberal concealed carry bill, and Representatives Mark Paschall and Scott McKay. The other major faction is an alliance between CSSA, the Firearms Coalition (which hosts a web page with CSSA), and the NRA's State Liaison Mary Anne Bradfield. Dean is tight with Bradfield and CSSA.
The animosity between the groups goes back to the days when Governor Roy Romer was sure to veto any concealed carry bill. A letter dated April 2, 1997 by Musgrave describes a blow-out between her and Bradfield:
Dear Mr. Brown,
Of course, the rift between RMGO and CSSA is in some sense an extension of the division between Gun Owners of America (RMGO's parent organization) and the National Rifle Association (with which CSSA is affiliated). But, as Musgrave's letter indicates, the tension on the state level far surpasses that at the national level; the Firearms Coalition cooperated with GOA, but it wouldn't think of cooperating with RMGO. CSSA links to GOA on its web page.
Dean has gotten into bed with the NRA more recently. Even last year RMGO listed Dean as "endorsed by Rocky Mountain Gun Owners PAC" (August 3, 1998 survey results). For that survey, Dean answered "yes" to the question, "Would you support Vermont-style legislation which would eliminate all requirements to pay fees and register gun owners and simply allow law-abiding citizens to carry firearms openly or concealed (at the individual's discretion) for any reason except for the commission of a crime?" Dean also said at that time he would "co-sponsor Vermont-style concealed carry."
Small wonder, then, that Brown felt betrayed when Dean effectively killed Musgrave's liberal bill by introducing his more restrictive alternative in the House.
A recap of the events of the 1999 session will prove useful. (For more information, see RMGO's announcements, which obviously are written from Brown's point of view.)
By late January, three competing Senate bills had been proposed. The two most viable ones were offered by Musgrave and Ken Chlouber. Chlouber's bill was more restrictive than Musgrave's, involving statewide databases for background checks and mandatory training.
On January 25, Senate President Ray Powers assigned Musgrave's bill to the Judiciary Committee, headed by Republican Dottie Wham. Brown believes Powers was intentionally trying to kill the bill, as Wham, according to RMGO (May 29, 1998), is one of the "biggest opponents" of gun rights supporters and "long an opponent of concealed carry and other pro-gun measures."
However, Musgrave's bill passed out of Wham's committee on February 1, with Wham's favorable vote.
(In a previous survey conducted by Project Vote Smart, Wham had answered that she wanted to "maintain all state registration procedures and state restrictions on possessing firearms," without expanding those restrictions, and "continue to allow law-abiding citizens to carry concealed firearms.")
On February 19, the Senate as a whole passed Musgrave's bill on a preliminary vote, and made it official on February 22.
During this time, Musgrave's bill started taking heat from Doug Dean, Governor Owens, and CSSA. A February 23 Denver Post article by Mike Soraghan entitled, "Curbs likely for concealed-gun bill; Owens objects to current version," states:
The concealed-handgun bill making its way through the Colorado Legislature is likely to have additional restrictions put on it before it gets to Gov. Bill Owens, a legislative leader said Monday.
What the governor wanted was mandatory training, expansive background checks, and "criminal safety zones" where concealed carry permits are void.
James Winchester as CSSA Vice President wrote in late February,
[T]wo bills were suspended in the judiciary committee of the state senate and another one [Musgrave's liberal concealed carry bill] was passed out of committee with some amendments which we do not favor. CSSA and NRA are working to pass a viable concealed handgun law taking effect this year. At this time it is too early to state with certainty what the law might look like in final form.
By Brown's interpretation, Dean sponsored a bill sanctioned by the NRA so that he could "curry favor" with the organization, which was set to hold its convention in Denver in May (the event was later scaled down drastically). Musgrave's letter concerning the NRA lends support to Brown's interpretation.
On March 4, the House Judiciary Committee killed Musgrave's bill, voting 10-3 against. During the hearing, members of the Firearms Coalition and CSSA testified against the liberal concealed carry bill.
Anticipating the passage of Dean's bill given the House Judiciary Committee's action to kill Musgrave's bill, RMGO put out an announcement on March 4 with the header, "SB156 dies; HB1316 must be cleaned up or killed." Notably, the RMGO announcement did NOT say the mandatory training requirement had to be removed, though the group lamented that provision. Rather, Brown specified three problems with Dean's bill. First, it gave Sheriffs discretion over who could get permits and who couldn't. Second, it barred those convicted of misdemeanor domestic violence offenses from carrying concealed. Third, it specified a fee which Brown felt was too high.
On March 19, the House voted in favor of Dean's bill. The discretionary issuance had been removed, but the misdemeanor exception and the high fee remained. Still, Brown was grudgingly willing to support this compromise bill.
However, when the Senate dumped Dean's bill in favor of Chlouber's revived and much more restrictive alternative, Brown was ready to jump ship. He argued that passing such a restrictive bill would be worse than waiting for a better law, because the restrictions would likely never be amended. In addition to the restrictions included in Dean's bill, Chlouber's bill contained mandatory fingerprinting, "criminal safety zones" where concealed guns would be prohibited, and increased discretion for Sheriffs. However, Brown still held out hope that Chlouber's bill could be stripped of its offensive provisions and pounded into something tolerable.
The Senate's course, first in supporting Musgrave's liberal bill and later in dumping Dean's bill in favor of Chlouber's more restrictive bill, makes sense given that Wham reportedly gets along well with Musgrave but not with Dean. Perhaps the Senate dumped Dean's bill in favor of Chlouber's in hopes of cleaning up the latter while denying Dean the credit for passing the concealed carry law. Similarly, the NRA/CSSA probably wanted to kill Musgrave's bill in part simply to deny victory to Brown.
Of course all of this became moot on April 21, the day after the Columbine massacre, when Chlouber and Dean pulled their bills from consideration.
Who's To Blame?
Ever since the concealed carry bills were pulled, leaders of the Firearms Coalition and CSSA have blamed Brown and RMGO for deliberately offering a contentious bill that delayed the vote until it was too late.
This charge is inappropriate for a number of reasons. The Columbine massacre was a completely unforseeable event for those involved. Nobody working on the concealed carry issue had any reason to believe the effective deadline for passing a law was anything other than the last day of the legislative session.
More significantly, Brown could make the same charge against the NRA/CSSA, the leadership of which deliberately torpedoed Musgrave's bill in favor of a more restrictive alternative.
Another criticism leveled against Brown is that the more liberal bill, if passed, would have been challenged by a lawsuit. Thus, goes this line of thought, Brown was attempting to pass a law which in effect would have denied Coloradans their right to carry concealed for at least another year.
I find this theory hard to believe. Perhaps anti-gun-owner activists would have challenged Musgrave's concealed carry law with a suit, but if so they likely would have challenged any concealed carry law. Dean's bill would not have been exempt from such action.
The difficulty lies in the wording of the Colorado Constitution, which reads:
The right of no person to keep and bear arms in defense of his home, person and property, or in aid of the civil power when thereto legally summoned, shall be called in question; but nothing herein contained shall be construed to justify the practice of carrying concealed weapons. (http://i2i.org/SuptDocs/ColoCon/iscolocn.htm)
Of course, the anti-gun-owner crowd wants to interpret this provision as prohibiting concealed carry. However, the law simply does not guarantee within the constitution the right to carry concealed, which leaves open the door for the legislature to legalize the practice. (I have changed my thinking somewhat on this issue from some months ago. See my article, along with comments by RMGO, Sandra Johnson, and Linn Armstrong.)
Many Coloradans aren't even aware of the fact that local sheriffs can already issue concealed carry permits valid in the entire state. The fact that Colorado law already makes provisions for concealed carry flies in the face of the allegation that Brown's bill might somehow be deemed unconstitutional. In particular, the Colorado Revised Statutes state:
18-12-105 - Unlawfully carrying a concealed weapon - unlawful possession of weapons.
For a complete list of statutes relevant to concealed carry, see the Colorado Revised Statutes.
So, contrary to claims by his opponents, the most plausible interpretation of events is that Brown made a good-faith effort to help pass a liberal concealed carry law he thought was best for Coloradans.
But if Brown's detractors are at this point seething over my analysis, I won't let Brown off the hook completely.
Brown's biggest mistake was referring to Musgrave's bill as a "Vermont-style" concealed carry bill. In Vermont, people don't need any permit whatsoever to carry a concealed handgun. That's nothing like the system Musgrave's bill would have created. Musgrave's bill would have required permits, dependent upon recipients passing the background checks enforced for all over-the-counter gun purchases.
Background checks are the single biggest problem with concealed carry laws. Brown got in a huff over government-mandated training, but such provisions are merely tedious and unnecessary though rather trivial nuisances. (One reason NRA leaders are so gung-ho for mandatory training is that they oversee many of the training programs.) Indeed, the real problem with mandatory training is that it might delay the issuance of a permit, thus endangering the lives of those who need a permit because of imminent danger. However, Brown did not push that argument, and anyway the law could require training within a set time of obtaining a permit.
But background checks are the more important issue. When one submits to a background check for a gun purchase or a concealed carry license, one automatically adds one's name to a government list which may be used down the road in the confiscation of guns. Those who believe otherwise are naive. After the shenanigans pulled by the FBI with Hillary Clinton and at Waco, to trust that organization with information about one's guns is folly indeed.
So Brown can claim to be "no-compromise" if he wants, but the truth of the matter is that he supported background checks from day one. True, the background checks in Musgrave's bill were not as onerous as those in Chlouber's bill, but the difference is rather similar to the degrees of being pregnant. You are, or you are not, on the government's lists of gun owners.
The only truly Vermont-style concealed carry bill to be offered in Colorado (that I know of) is that of Representative Paschall, who valiantly (or foolishly, according to his detractors) offers such a bill every year.
Because Brown misleadingly applied the "Vermont-style" tag to Musgrave's bill, he may have unnecessarily alienated those keen on a compromise bill. Musgrave's bill was a compromise.
In sum, CSSA and its supporters erred in killing Musgrave's bill partly for spite and in being too willing to add unnecessary and damaging compromises. Brown erred in fixating on the relatively trivial requirement of training and in trying to pass off Musgrave's compromise bill as a "no-compromise" baseline.
So whose fault is it that no concealed carry law passed in Colorado in 1999? It's nobody's fault. If the shooting at Columbine hadn't happened, a compromise bill would have made it out of the session, a bill great for those in imminent danger of attack but lousy for those of us worried about adding our names to government gun lists.
Strategies for Freedom
What is the nature of compromise? There's "good" compromise and "bad" compromise.
The good variety is voluntary compromise. Say, you and your spouse are trying to decide which movie to view, and you both have different preferences, but you compromise so that you can view one film together. Or, two businesses are negotiating over the sale price of a machine; the compromise reached is a good one beneficial to both parties. With voluntary compromise, both parties agreed to interact in the first place.
Then there is compromise of force, which is always bad and to be avoided. The most basic example is when a mugger demands your money or your life. Neither option is desirable for the victim, but the lesser of two evils is to hand over the wallet.
The ideal is a consistently upheld right to bear arms. Anything less is a damaging compromise to be avoided, if at all possible.
The problem with the NRA, and with centrist politics generally, is that compromise often becomes an end in itself. This helps explain why Bill Owens, Doug Dean, CSSA and the NRA were so quick to embrace compromises on the concealed carry issue. It's as if one's willingness to compromise is a measure of one's virtue.
But then of course there was the intense political pressure to water down the concealed carry bill. If compromise is necessary, the rule is simple: keep as much freedom as possible! In many respects, the difference between RMGO and CSSA is an honest disagreement over how much freedom really is possible. Brown and GOA director Larry Pratt are more optimistic: they believe they can turn the tide with reasoned discussion and well-orchestrated political activism. The NRA and CSSA, on the other hand, tend to run more scared.
The real issue, then, is not whether gun owners should compromise. All parties involved basically agree that the right to bear arms should be protected to the greatest extent possible. The fundamental disagreement is over how much freedom really is possible.
Conflicting theories of how much freedom is possible lead to two distinct strategies for advocating gun-owner rights. The strategy of RMGO/GOA can be summed up as, "Principle will win the day." The strategy of CSSA/NRA, as expressed by Bradfield and others, is, "In politics, perception is often reality." I'll title these conflicting strategies "principle" and "perception."
The Principle Strategy assumes that enough of the population is open to reasoned discussion that the ideals of the right to bear arms can be effectively propagated. It assumes that intelligent activism can overcome media bias and anti-gun emotionalism. When pressured to compromise, adherents of the Principle Strategy believe they will have to give up little or no ground.
The Perception Strategy, on the other hand, holds that cultural beliefs are largely determined by outside forces and difficult if not impossible to alter. It assumes that, in the aftermath of a tragedy such as Columbine, the public sentiment will necessarily turn against gun owners, thus necessitating serious compromise.
I believe the Principle Strategy is correct. Perception is not reality, concealed carry laws save lives no matter how many anti-gun-owner zealots claim otherwise, and gun ownership on the whole helps create a safer, more civilized society. These are the demonstrable facts of reality. Further, some portion of the populace is open to reasoned discourse, studies such as John Lott's can change people's minds, and a passionate, factual, and moral defense of gun ownership will win the day, if only gun owners will seize their opportunities.
The Perception Strategy can lead only to defeat. It grants the moral high-ground to the anti-gun-owner lobby, it compromises away our rights perpetually, and it plays defense until the defense crumbles and the offense rusts.
The main reason Musgrave's more liberal concealed carry bill didn't succeed is that Bill Owens and the CSSA faction didn't think it could succeed. If the CSSA leadership had spent its energy supporting the liberal concealed carry bill instead of denouncing it, the bill probably would have gained more public support.
If Colorado's gun owners don't stand up for the civil right to bear arms, who will? If we don't take our case to the people, who will? If we cower before those who would denigrate our rights and subject us to the will of the FBI, the ATF, and Rosie O'Donnell, who will support us?
If we don't find the courage of our convictions, no one will believe our convictions are sincere.
Even if I'm wrong, even if gun owners are doomed to lose their rights and suffer a police state, what good does it do us to go down wearing chains of our own design? We have a fighting chance to win, but not if we cower in the corner of the ring with gloves covering our shamed faces.
Détente or Retaliation?
The mantra of CSSA is, "Keep the politicians happy!" The message of RMGO is, "We'll support you if you support the right to bear arms, and we'll ruin you if you don't." Which strategy is better?
Surely there is a healthy balance between the two strategies. CSSA and Doug Dean caved to Governor Owens's pressure (as Owens had previously caved to anti-gun-owner lobby groups). If CSSA leaders had rallied support behind Musgrave's bill, they probably could have sent Owens a relatively liberal concealed carry alternative. There is simply no way Owens could have failed to sign the bill, if he hopes to win reelection. (The gun groups combined have more members than Owens's margin of victory.) So appeasement probably wasn't necessary in this case.
On the other hand, it's important to get along with people and to separate issues from personalities.
A Culture of Open Debate
At least Dudley Brown is willing to debate the issues on their merits. In his extensive log of legislative updates, he discusses in detail the problems and benefits he sees with various proposals, provides links to the original documents, and attempts to convince readers of the validity of his position. Even though Brown's updates are slanted, Brown respects his readers' intelligence and he provides the information necessary to pursue independent inquiry.
Contrast Brown's approach with that of CSSA's Vice President James Winchester, whose report reads:
Colorado Concealed Carry Law Status Report -- February 1999...
What were the two bills that were suspended? Why did CSSA oppose Musgrave's bill? What constitutes a "viable concealed handgun law?" Are any provisions considered over the line? Are any provisions especially important? The message between Winchester's lines is, "Don't concern yourselves with the details. We're in charge, and we know best. We'll let you know what our decision is when we reach it."
Perhaps that's a minor example. I could give several other examples relevant to the attempted stifling of open discussion; for more read my previous article concerning Doug Dean and CSSA.
Perhaps Colorado gun owners can learn something from another schism in the broader pro-freedom community: the split among Objectivists. Philosopher David Kelley writes that open debate is essential for the success of any intellectual movement. While Kelley is writing about philosophy, his comments apply to reasoned discourse generally:
[Developing ideas] will not be a matter of adding blocks to a monolithic structure, with everyone in full agreement at every step. People will disagree about the proper approach to a given problem and the merits of proposed solutions... They may find it necessary to reformulate principles, or qualify them... And any such modification will of course be a subject of debate. All of this is part of the process of inquiry... The greatest contributions to this development will come from the most rational and independent minds, whose only concern is the truth. They will not function with double vision,... keeping one eye on reality and the other on [accepted doctrine]. (Truth and Toleration, Objectivist Center 1990, page 62)
Another great leader of the pro-freedom movement, Leonard Read, also offered sound advice for organizations. According to Read, the best way for an association to serve the needs of its members is to...
...provide headquarters and meeting rooms where members may assemble in free association, exchange ideas, take advantage of the knowledge of others, learn of each other's experiences and thoughts. In addition, let the association be staffed with research experts and a competent secretariat, having on hand a working library and other aids of learning. Then, let the members speak or write or act as individual persons! Indeed, this is the real, high purpose of voluntary associations. (Anything That's Peaceful, Foundation for Economic Education 1998, page 104)
Renewed Cooperation for Mutual Advantage
How can Colorado's community of gun owners better cooperate to achieve a political system and society we can all agree would be an improvement? I've put together a preliminary list, which no doubt needs to be developed further.
This essay is open to commentary. I will be happy to publish the substantive replies of any party. Such replies will be linked following this paragraph. Send your commentary to firstname.lastname@example.org.