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Pistol power returns to the West

A sheriff rides a wave of enthusiasm for an armed citizenry, prompted by something more than fear of crime, writes Phil Reeves in Colorado Springs
Sitting in his spacious office, John Anderson wears the broad grin of a man who is enjoying the taste of success. As his pile of congratulatory letters confirms, allowing his constituents to carry concealed guns could hardly have been a bigger hit. In fact, he is the toast of Colorado Springs.

When he pinned on his badge as Sheriff of El Paso County three months ago, the former police sergeant knew that he had a promise to fulfil. He had campaigned on the view that if law-abiding citizens felt safer by slipping a pistol under their jackets as they went about their business, then they should be able to do so.

He has kept his word. Almost anyone over 25 can now expect to be granted a concealed-weapons permit, as long as they have a clean criminal record. There is no need for weapons training. Nor is there any requirement to demonstrate an overriding need to be armed.

"I want people to know that if they are standing at a bank cash machine and some idiot walks up with a butcher's knife, they'll have the right to defend themselves," he explained.

"And I want criminals to wonder what their chances are of getting blown away before they commit a crime."

The response has been overwhelming. More than 4,000 people, including politicians, doctors, lawyers, the elderly, teachers and fast-food workers have flooded the sheriff's office with requests for application forms. His Colorado fiefdom, a stretch of prairie where the Great Plains meet the Rocky Mountains, will soon be more heavily armed than ever before.

Nor is it alone. Legislatures in Virginia, Arkansas and Utah have recently relaxed their concealed-weapons laws and at least 14 other states are considering following suit, including Texas. A rush to possess arms is under way across the United States, not least because of the rise to power of Republicans in many state governments.

Colorado Springs was always likely to be at the fore of such a trend. The metropolis, whose 340,000 citizens include a large military population, has a Republican tradition as rock-solid as the 14,110ft Pike's Peak mountain that dominates its horizon. A stronghold of America's religious right, it was the engine room for the campaigns that led to the passage of Colorado's Amendment Two, a 1992 referendum motion that ended anti-discrimination laws for gays in housing and employment, and Amendment One, which required voters' approval for tax increases.

But neither the city's Republican leanings, nor the area's Wild West traditions (El Paso County has several old gold rush towns) explains the intensity of the public's enthusiasm for concealed weapons. It takes an entire year for Colorado Springs to rack up the several dozen murders that occur each week in Los Angeles or Washington DC. There is more to this than fear.

The public's assertion of its constitutional right to bear arms is linked to a broader mood of anti-federalism that is running high in the Western states. Small but vocal gun-toting "freemen" and "patriot" movements are proliferating. This month, the US Justice Department filed a suit to stop a county in Nevada from claiming ownership of federal lands, a move intended to send a warning to dozens of other "rebel" counties in California, Oregon, Idaho, and New Mexico that are considering similar challenges.

"Ten years ago, it wasn't like this out here," said Dean Kelsey, a New Yorker who works for the sheriff's department. "You never had all this talk about constitutionalism or this anti-federal feeling." In Colorado Springs, this has a peculiar element of hypocrisy, as half the city derives its income from military bases.

Whatever the explanation, the sheriff's concealed-weapons policy raises sensitive issues. Several years ago, a 17-year-old boy was shot dead in Colorado by a retired air force officer whose gun went off, apparently by mistake, after the youth had allegedly struck him. The sheriff's opponents, who include the city's police chief, fear that a more heavily armed public will mean similar incidents, as well as acts of deadly vigilantism and fatal mistaken identity.

Mr Anderson answers these concerns by citing the example of Florida, one of 20 states that allow citizens easily to obtain concealed-gun permits, and where there was a 29 per cent drop in handgun-related homicides in the five years after the law was relaxed. He also points out that guns will still be banned from bars, schools, and sports grounds,

But the statistics are contradictory and by-laws are easily broken. A study of five areas with relaxed concealed-weapons laws found that murders involving shooting went up in four of them, although other forms of homicide remained steady.

Put such concerns to the sheriff and he answers cautiously. "If things go haywire, we'll change things," he said, switching off his smile for an instant. "But," he added more cheerfully, "I doubt that'll be the case."