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Where Urban Chaos Meets the Wild West : CAMPUS CORRESPONDENCE

September 19, 1993|CLINT TALBOTT | Clint Talbott is editor of the Colorado Daily at the University of Colorado at Boulder

BOULDER, COLO. — It was a weekend party, and a college student noticed a group of teen-agers harassing some women. When he urged them to stop, one of the harass ers pointed a loaded gun at his head. This time, however, he didn't pull the trigger. Instead, he and his friends just broke the student's nose and chipped his teeth. According to police, it was just part of a "pretty normal weekend" near the University of Colorado at Boulder.

A few weeks later, two Colorado football players were "threatened" at a social function on campus. So they did what red-blooded Coloradans do: They left the event to get their semi-automatic handguns "for protection." The cops nabbed them as they were returning to assert their manhood.

Not long ago, gun-wielding teen-agers rarely visited campus, or crashed student parties. After all, in Boulder, a pristine, liberal enclave, the problems of the big city were supposed to be just a bad dream. But we're waking up to realize that those who moved here to escape urban problems have spawned new ones. Violence is rising in the Denver-Boulder area.

Still, this is Colorado, where big-game hunting buttresses the economy, where blaze-orange "Welcome Hunters" signs adorn thousands of rural liquor stores. This is Colorado, where ranchers proudly display their rifles in their pickup's windows. This is the land of gun clubs and shooting ranges. How do we balance our new gun problems with our gun tradition?

The innocent dead of the Denver area's "summer of violence" called us to act. Their murders show why the gun-control law just passed by the Colorado Legislature is sound. And they show why the law is only a modest step.

This summer, Colorado Gov. Roy Romer called the state's lawmakers into special session to deal with violence among youth. He proposed a 14-point "iron fist" program to crack down on the young gang members who are using guns to commit crimes in Denver nearly twice as frequently as they did last year. Lawmakers whittled away much of Romer's plan.

But a key proposal survived: It is now illegal for a minor to possess a handgun, except for purposes of hunting, target-shooting and firearms competition. Those caught breaking the law--an estimated 1,825 in the first year--face at least five days in jail, and could remain there, without bail, until their trial, which must occur within 60 days of arrest. Gun-toting kids are guilty of a misdemeanor and face up to year in jail and a fine of up to $1,000. Their second offense is a felony.

The law is justified. Homicide is the second-leading cause of death nationwide for 15- to 24-year-olds, according to the Centers for Disease Control, and most of those deaths were gun-related. Since 1985, the risk of dying from a gunshot has jumped 77% for those between 15 and 19.

The popular movement toward more gun control--even the National Rifle Assn. backed it--galls Colorado's rural residents, who still relish vestiges of the old West. I grew up rural Western Colorado. In my home, guns outnumbered people. My mother, father and I owned a shotgun, a rifle, a semi-automatic handgun, a six-shooter, and my great-grandfather's single-shot pistol. I spent plenty of afternoons blowing away tin cans.

But guns always scared me. When I went to college, my best friend's girlfriend put a gun in her mouth and pulled the trigger. I haven't touch a gun since.

The new gun law appropriately sends the message that guns aren't tools for conflict-resolution, or drunken entertainment. That message should be sent to gang members, football players and farm boys.*

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