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Editor’s note: Following last week’s Umpqua Community College shooting in Oregon, Real Vail is re-posting a series of articles that were first published in early 2013 in the wake of the Sandy Hook Elementary School mass shooting. Since then there have been 142 more school shootings in the United States, according to Everytown.org:
Vail Police Chief Dwight Henninger says he would like to see Congress reinstate a federal ban on assault weapons similar to the ordinance currently on the books in Vail.
“I truly believe this is a 20-year issue,” Henninger said. “Even if tomorrow we were to ban all new assault-rifle sales, we would still be dealing with these for a very long time. Why not start today? How many more Newtown type events do we need to have before we can make a decision that this isn’t what we need in our communities?”
The Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre in Newtown, Conn., last month claimed the lives of 20 young school children and six teachers. The assailant used a Bushmaster AR-15 assault rifle, which is banned in the town of Vail. Henninger said he supports private gun ownership, just not military-style, semi-automatic assault rifles.
“No one’s talking about hunting rifles and handguns,” Henninger said. “We’re talking about assault rifles with high-capacity magazines that are really only made to kill people … and I think it has to be a federal law because right now we see some states have much more liberal laws and then those weapons are found in a number of different areas … [including] down in Mexico, where they’re killing police officers and military folks on a regular basis.”
Henninger acknowledges an assault weapon ban in a ski town like Vail may be a bit like the situation he encountered in his previous law enforcement post in Irvine, Calif., where the mayor got a resolution passed banning offshore oil drilling despite the fact Irvine is not on the coast.
But even a seemingly peaceful tourism destination like Vail can be the scene of shocking gun violence.
On the night of Nov. 7, 2009, Vail resident Richard “Rossi” Moreau was kicked out of the Sandbar bar and restaurant in West Vail for arguing with other patrons. He returned to the bar and opened fire with a .45 caliber handgun, wounding three and killing Dr. Gary Kitching of Carbondale. Moreau last year was found guilty of eight felony counts, including first degree murder, and sentenced to life in prison without parole, plus 80 years.
“I know Rossi Moreau did have some weapons that would have qualified under [Vail’s assault weapons ban] but clearly a murder charge trumps some municipal code charge,” Henninger said. “I don’t know whether he had any knowledge of the ordinance, and why he didn’t bring a rifle to a bar seems pretty obvious to me. Probably wouldn’t have gotten in.”
Henninger, who became police chief in 2004 – 10 years after the Vail Town Council passed the local assault weapons ban – said he knows of only one time during his tenure that the ordinance was enforced, and that involved confiscating and holding a weapon owned by a seasonal worker.
There are no gun stores in Vail selling assault weapons, so that’s never been an issue, and there has never been a gun show in town where such weapons might be sold, Henninger said.
One of the central questions in the trial of Moreau, who had a history of illegally discharging firearms in Vail, was his mental state.
Henninger said identifying individuals with mental issues and trying to keep them from getting guns is critical, but it can’t be the only measure taken to curtail gun violence. Last week, Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper called for a system of universal background checks for all gun purchases. Last month he presented a plan to overhaul Colorado’s mental health system in the wake of Newtown and last summer’s deadly Aurora theater massacre.
“The governor is on the right track on trying to find a better way to communicate who should not have a weapon, particularly in the mental health arena,” Henninger said, “but I think we all know that people will have access – both criminals and folks with mental health issues – and from my perspective the sheer numbers out there provide the access.”
All the more reason to start getting new assault weapons off the streets, Henninger said.
Diane Mitsch Bush, the newly elected Democratic state representative for Eagle and Routt counties, said she too believe in protecting the Second Amendment but also wants to explore ways to better protect the public.
“I got so many emails and even phone calls saying, ‘The governor is going to do this,’ Mitsch Bush said. “And I said, ‘I was there. I heard the State of the State [speech] and that isn’t what the governor said.’ The governor said we need to really consider all of the alternatives. And I couldn’t agree more.”
She added the dialogue needs to occur at the state and local level, even if the federal government ultimately enacts its own measures – which seems likely as President Barack Obama weighs Vice President Joe Biden’s recommendations to curb gun violence.
“In the spirit of cooperation I hope both of those levels of government cooperate and at the local level too, but much of the burden of background checks is going to fall on states and more importantly local jurisdictions,” Mitsch Bush said. She added that the conversation needs to include all stakeholders and include a wide range of alternatives.
“A lot of people are very concerned that this legislature and this governor and at the federal level this president are going to move in some radical direction to take away guns,” Mitsch Bush said. “And I don’t like to call it gun control as much as gun safety and violence prevention, because that’s really what it’s all about.”