- Bruce Elliott
- Armed El Paso County security officer Jim Fohl checks a visitor entering the county judicial building.
El Paso County Commissioners, who claim an aversion to big government, could spend hundreds of thousands of tax dollars a year for additional security if they approve a plan that lets people openly display their guns in public offices.
The proposition has created a sense of dread among many county employees, especially in light of the courtroom shootings in Atlanta that two weeks ago left four people dead, including a judge. In an anonymous poll of 118 county employees last week, Clerk and Recorder Bob Balink found that 116 oppose reversing the banning of guns in buildings.
"What [the poll] says is they feel intimidated by the presence of guns," Balink said.
Yet Sheriff Terry Maketa is working at the behest of commissioners on a possible "compromise" plan that would allow people to carry guns into county offices so long as the guns are in a holster.
"I don't really have any concerns that [lifting the ban] is going to lead to violence," Maketa said.
Commissioners have not yet scheduled a vote.
But department heads are already angling for security improvements in the event that the ban is lifted, such as more guards and gun-storage lockers.
Breaking the bank
At least seven of the county's offices don't have regularly posted security guards, said Rich Leffler, director of county security. Included in the mix are the main administrative building at 27 E. Vermijo Ave., and the Clerk and Recorder's office at 200 S. Cascade Ave.
Leffler estimates it would cost $30,000 a year to post one guard for 40 hours a week -- or about $210,000 annually for the seven buildings.
Leffler hasn't yet been formally asked by commissioners to calculate the costs of more security and was unable to assess other factors, such as health insurance or multiple guards in some buildings.
Other costs that could be incurred include installing gun storage lockers -- which might be required in offices where managers are granted exceptions, including the offices of the treasurer, assessor and public trustee, where money changes hands.
Guns would continue to be banned in the county courthouse, under the proposed plan.
The final security tab would depend on the level of extra safety commissioners ultimately deem necessary, Leffler added.
Looking down the barrel
Barbara Drake, director of Human Services, is among those asking for more protections. She is concerned about two of her department's buildings, including the Family Visitation Center, 701 E. Boulder St. Many clients there are involved in complex child protection issues that are sometimes volatile, she said.
"There is no security there," Drake said.
Angi Jenkins, who works for the county's Motor Vehicle Department, where an armed guard is currently posted, says a customer once pointed a gun at her. She said it was terrifying.
She fears that if the ban is reversed, the likelihood that a customer might resort to a gun to solve a dispute will increase.
"It's really frightening," she said.
At a public meeting earlier this month, Commissioner Douglas Bruce cast himself as the unashamed "instigator" of the proposal. He told county workers that residents have a constitutional right to be armed in county offices, whether "to pay their taxes or protest their assessment."
Bruce also echoed the sentiments of several gun activists, stating people are safer when they are allowed to display their firearms. A reversal of the ban might even prompt people to be more "polite" to each other, he added.
Bruce and the other four commissioners -- Jim Bensberg, Wayne Williams, Sallie Clark and Dennis Hisey -- are active members of the Pikes Peak Firearms Coalition, a group that has lobbied hard to allow guns in county buildings.
Residents and county workers spoke at the March 14 meeting with a margin of roughly three-to-one against the plan. Over and over, people asked why any change is necessary.
Michael Hurlstone, a former Army Ranger, made his point in dramatic fashion.
"It would take a matter of seconds to wipe out this entire panel with a handgun," he said.
Hurlstone wasn't making a threat. Rather, he said, he wanted to point out just how quickly lives would change in a worst-case scenario -- one where there is a fatal shooting by someone emboldened to carry their gun into a building under a new county policy.
-- Michael de Yoanna