John Suthers had been mayor of Colorado Springs, Colorado, for less than six months when he found his city hit by two shootings, just weeks apart. The first happened this Halloween, when a 33-year-old man named Noah Harpham opened fire in the downtown area, killing three people. It was later revealed that a neighbor had called 911 shortly before the murders took place and told the dispatcher that Harpham was openly carrying a rifle and looked suspicious. The dispatcher replied that Colorado allows open carry, and so the man was not committing a crime. The police did not arrive on the scene until after the rampage was underway. They eventually killed the gunman.
In the wake of the incident, Suthers was asked whether there should be a review of the state’s open carry regulations. “What your open carry laws are don’t dictate what your violent crime rate is,” he told the Colorado Gazette. As for seeking new restrictions, he said, “I personally do not have an appetite.”
His comments were still lingering when, last Friday, 57-year-old Robert Lewis Dear opened fire with a semi-automatic rifle at one of the city’s Planned Parenthood clinics, killing three people and wounding 10 others. When Suthers appeared at the crime scene the next day, the Gazette again asked him about new regulations, and again Suthers asserted that additional measures would not help prevent such shootings. Rather, he claimed, “We need to do a much better job of screening for mental health situations,” though whether the gunman’s mental health history is relevant to the shooting remains unknown.
Taken together, the mayor’s comments might appear to be those of a politician beholden to both special interests and his party: Suthers is a Republican and has an A-rating from the National Rifle Association. Yet his past provides a different portrait. Despite his personal beliefs, in 15 years of public service, Suthers’s first allegiance has typically been to the law, which at times has brought him into conflict with local gun-rights advocates.
Trained as a lawyer, Suthers ran for State Attorney General in 1998 and narrowly lost. Before the election, he articulated some of his views on gun control, telling the Denver Post that he adheres to the state constitution, which guarantees the right to openly carry a firearm. He did note, however, that concealed weapons are “subject to the police power of the state,” allowing for extensive background checks. Three years later, he was appointed U.S. Attorney for Colorado by George W. Bush. He told the Gazette that the Bush administration expected him to “vigorously enforce existing gun laws.” Under his watch, 172 Colorado residents were charged with violating federal gun laws in 2003 — a quarter of all criminal cases in the state’s federal courts. It was a record number at the time, and a 46 percent increase from the previous year.
The surge in arrests was part of a statewide crackdown called Project Exile, an aggressive campaign that targeted residents who ran afoul of gun laws. Dudley Brown, who runs Rocky Mountain Gun Owners and the National Association for Gun Rights, two avid pro-gun groups, called the program “Project Gestapo,” adding, “Many of those people are only guilty of paperwork infringements.” Actually, most of the defendants were felons who were charged with illegally possessing a firearm. Others were accused of using weapons during drug crimes or selling sawed-off shotguns and machine guns.
Suthers ran for state Attorney General and won, assuming the post in 2005. He held the position for a decade. Between 2007 and 2009, he joined a series of amicus briefs filed in high-profile gun cases around the country, arguing that handgun bans in Washington, D.C., and Chicago were unconstitutional. These were largely symbolic gestures, and, given that he played no role in the court proceedings, could be seen as demonstrations of his ideological beliefs.
When Colorado passed tough firearms restrictions following the 2012 Aurora movie theater shooting, Suthers, through his duties as AG, found himself in the role of gun-regulation defender. One of the new laws expanded background checks to all gun sales; another limited the capacity of ammunition magazines to 15 rounds. Both laws were upheld, and after the victory, Suthers’s office sent out a press release. “The Colorado Attorney General’s Office has never asserted that the laws in question are good, wise or sound policy,” it said. “As it does in all cases, the AG’s Office has fulfilled its responsibility to defend the constitutionality of the Colorado law in question.”
In March of this year, as Suthers was running for mayor, Dudley Brown used those rulings to smear him. In a letter to his followers, he said that if Suthers wins, “he’ll continue his track record of sabotaging your right to bear arms.”
In response, Suthers told the Colorado Statesman that “the rule of law requires regardless of your personal opinion about it that you defend it.”
In the end, Suthers won 68 percent of the vote.
[Photo: AP Photo/Ed Andrieski]