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Shooting In Denver Renews Questions About The Impact Of Guns At Protests

A man was shot and killed last weekend in Denver as two competing protest events wound down.
Leigh Paterson
A man was shot and killed last weekend in Denver as two competing protest events wound down.

Last weekend in Denver, protesters gathered at Civic Center Park on a sunny afternoon. On one side was the Patriot Muster rally, on the other, the Antifa Soup Drive. Barricades separated the competing groups, as did a long line of police in riot gear.

As the competing events wound down, two people got into a confrontation. One was shot and killed. The shooting suspect is a security guard who had been hired by a local TV news station.

This altercation, which follows previous incidents of violence at protests, has renewed questions about the presence of firearms at these events.

Over the past six months, at least four people have been shot during protest events in Colorado. Police injured several protesters with rubber bullets and tear gas. Fightshave broken out among various groups.

However, according to a data analysis by the US Crisis Monitor, protest violence is rare. The project, which is a collaboration between Princeton University and the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project, has tracked over 14,000 demonstrations in the U.S. since the death of George Floyd at the end of May and found that the vast majority have been peaceful. In Colorado, out of the 291 events tracked so far, the same is true.

Still, the presence of guns can escalate the outcome when violent incidents do unfold.

“Some of these protests get very emotional. People have very strong feelings for what they’re there for or counter-protesting,” Fort Collins Police Chief Jeff Swoboda said. “If you have a high emotion event and introduce a weapon of any sort, the probability it will be used goes up in my opinion.”

At protests across Colorado, many different types of people are there with guns. Law enforcement is armed, as are civilians who say they’re protecting businesses or themselves from other protesters or from police. At the recent protest in Denver, the man accused in the fatal shooting was an armed security guard hired by a local TV news station.

“It definitely comes into the decision-making of when an officer is going to step in and address an issue,” Chief Swoboda said. “For Instance, if two people are arguing and both are heavily armed, maybe have rifles around their shoulder, an officer is going to think twice about how far he is going to step in between these two.”

Northern Colorado Mutual Aid And Defense, a leftist group which does community outreach and also advocates for firearms ownership, wrote in an email that they feel that bringing guns to a protest is dangerous, but also that police would be less likely to use tear gas or rubber bullets on an armed protester.

“We’ve got a situation where all of the stakeholders are suspicious of one another and they are heavily armed,” said Saul Cornell, chair of the history department at Fordham University.

He said that factors like police distrust and gun rights have led people to “think they can serve a policing function spontaneously.”

“Is the lesson that everyone should go out and get a gun? Or is the lesson, we need to do a better job of structuring our society?” Cornell said.

While some states explicitly ban guns at protests, Colorado is not one of them.

Cory Christensen, the Steamboat Springs police chief and president of the Colorado Association of Chiefs of Police, wrote in an email that law enforcement has long been aware of armed protesters; a possible ban on guns might not make an impact.

“The rules will not stop them,” Christensen wrote. “so we will still need to worry about weapons at the protest.”

As KUNC's Senior Editor and Reporter, my job is to find out what’s important to northern Colorado residents and why. I seek to create a deeper sense of urgency and understanding around these issues through in-depth, character driven daily reporting and series work.