Long live the Wild West
October 15, 2007
So, you like to shoot guns?You say you’ve got a collection of rifles, shotguns or pistols, and it is one of your private joys to head to a range for a day of plinking? Or maybe you’re more likely to head out across a local swamp or meadow in search of waterfowl or other wildlife.
Well, clearly, Colorado is the place for you, because there are very few restrictions on what one can do in terms of purchasing, owning, carrying and firing a gun in this state, as long as you don’t shoot it at someone, into someone’s car or home, or otherwise engage in what is called “reckless endangerment” of another human being.What that means is that in most circumstances, in most places around the state, most people can go about their business armed to the teeth, making the term “Wild West” seem not so antiquated.You can even wear a loaded gun on your hip, cowboy-style or any other way, as long as it’s in plain sight and you don’t shoot it off inside of city limits.The issue of gun laws arose recently in the Roaring Fork Valley when a midvalley resident, filmmaker Wayne Ewing of El Jebel, complained to the Eagle County Sheriff’s Office about hunters with shotguns shooting at waterfowl in his neighborhood.Essentially, state and local authorities told Ewing there was nothing they could do unless the hunters actually hit his house, or a person, because the use of guns in unincorporated areas is relatively unrestricted.Authorities continue to look into the shooting death of a red fox that was found on Ewing’s property the day Ewing called the sheriff. The fox was shot out of season, and authorities say they have no leads as to who shot it. And Eagle County Sheriff Joe Hoy conceded that the laws probably will stay as they are until a person is shot.
Nationwide, pistols are the most regulated form of firearm. But even in this case, Colorado is pretty loose with its laws.According to the National Rifle Association, no permits of any kind are needed in Colorado to buy or own a long gun or a pistol, as long as a person is at least 18 years old and otherwise legally eligible to own a gun.If a person wants to carry a pistol in a concealed manner – say, under a shoulder, at the small of the back or in an ankle holster – obtaining a permit is still relatively simple. All a person must do is as ask, unless he or she happens to be a felon, or was convicted of domestic violence, juvenile delinquency or slapped with a restraining order in a domestic violence context. In such cases, for a certain length of time, the person convicted or otherwise adjudicated cannot possess a gun anyway. Plus, the county sheriff can deny such a person’s application to carry a concealed weapon.
The sheriff also can deny a “concealed-carry permit” if he or she “reasonably believes that documented previous behavior by the applicant makes it likely that the applicant will present a danger to self or others if the permit is issued,” states the NRA’s Institute for Legislative Action website.According to the sheriff’s departments in Garfield and Pitkin counties, there have been nearly 600 concealed-carry permits issued to local gun owners (94 in Pitkin; roughly 500 in Garfield) since 2003, when Colorado law changed to require sheriffs to grant concealed-carry permits to almost anyone who wants one. Anyone qualified to get a concealed-carry permit in another state can cross into Colorado with the weapon, providing that the issuing state recognizes the validity of permits held by Coloradoans when they venture across the same state lines.As for carrying a loaded pistol out in the open, no one can stop you, unless you try to carry it onto the grounds of a school, college or other educational institution. This is universally true, except for police, security guards, instructors and others engaged in legitimate efforts to educate kids about weapons and their use, maintenance and repair. You also cannot carry weapons of any sort into the state capital and related buildings where the Colorado General Assembly does its business, a likely indication of the rough life of legislators in the early days of statehood.Interestingly, it is illegal to carry “a firearm other than a handgun in or on any motor vehicle unless the chamber is unloaded,” but it is legal to carry a loaded pistol in a car, or “other private means of conveyance,” or if it is being carried by a hunter out in the wild looking for game.
Municipalities normally follow state laws regarding the sale and possession of firearms, and many have their own laws prohibiting the firing of guns within city limits. In the towns of the Roaring Fork Valley, there are laws against shooting guns within town limits, although there is some latitude in cases of self-defense. Generally speaking, in such cases it will often be left up to a municipal judge to decide.But beyond that, it is perfectly legal to carry a gun in plain sight, and it happens all the time.Sgt. Steven Spencer of Garfield County said he has responded to calls from new residents worried about gunfire in their rural neighborhood, and in all cases he has found it involved target shooters who were acting legally. He would check to see that there was not alcohol being consumed, the targets had the proper backdrop to prevent bullets from going astray, and then he would go on his way.Aspen Police Sgt. Brian Nichols recalled an incident several years ago, when he was called upon to talk to a man eating in a local restaurant who was carrying a pistol in a holster on his belt, in plain sight.The man told Nichols he was wearing the gun “for his own personal protection. He was a former military guy and was kind of permanently in that mode.”When he contacted the man, Nichols said, “We had a nice, friendly conversation and that was that.” The man kept his gun on his belt, and Nichols walked away.
As noted above, rifles and shotguns, while they generally can be bought and possessed with fewer restrictions than handguns, are bound by some rules.According to the Colorado Division of Wildlife website, waterfowl hunting, for instance, of any kind is prohibited “within the area bounded on the north by the Colorado-Wyoming state line; on the east and south by I-76, Colo. 71, US 36 and I-70; and on the west by the Continental Divide and the Larimer-Jackson county line and in Brent, Crowley, Kiowa, Mesa, Otero and Prowers counties.” Essentially, that means large parts of the Eastern plains area of Colorado and Mesa County on the Western Slope are not off limits.This regulation was made law some time around 1970 because of increasing residential development along the Front Range, according to Randy Hampton of the DOW.
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Mesa County petitioned to be included, the only one of the Western Slope counties to show interest, because of “the numbers of waterfowl hunters and the density of development,” Hampton said. In areas where waterfowl congregate and there are a lot of people interested in hunting them, Mesa County decided it needed to head off a potential for conflict.The different resort counties west of the Divide, which have seen explosive residential growth in the past two decades, apparently weren’t interested in being included in the legislation, Hampton said.In Pitkin, Eagle and Garfield counties, for example, “the number of waterfowl hunters is relatively small,” Hampton said, so local officials saw no need to be included in the law.But, he said, if other counties do want to be included, all it would take is for citizens or county officials to contact the DOW to start the process of amending the law.John Colson’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org