What, if anything, does the horrific murder of Colorado prisons chief Tom Clements say about the state’s gun laws? Although at first blush the murder might seem to illustrate a need for stricter gun laws, on deeper review it actually illustrates why laws that divert scarce government resources away from catching and tracking criminals to investigating and tracking peaceable gun owners are counterproductive.
Advocates for stricter gun laws point out that the man who murdered Clements, Evan Ebel, used a gun to commit that atrocity and related ones. NBC News reports that Governor John Hickenlooper signed gun legislation “expanding background checks on gun purchases and limiting the size of ammunition magazines . . . the day after the head of Colorado’s Department of Corrections, Tom Clements, was shot and killed in his home.”
But the laws Hickenlooper signed could not conceivably have prevented the murder of Clements had they been in effect earlier. Depending on whose story you believe, either Ebel stole the gun from his girlfriend, or his girlfriend gave him the gun. Theft and transferring a gun to a felon are already crimes, and properly so—even though criminals do not always obey the relevant laws. So the expanded background checks would have made no difference.
What about the magazine restrictions, which prohibit the transfer of magazines that hold more than fifteen rounds? According to David Walker, the sheriff of Wise County in Texas (whom I called), after his office was involved in a shootout with Ebel, police recovered a single gun from Ebel, a Smith & Wesson semiautomatic 9 mm handgun. It was the same gun used to murder Clements, ballistic reports showed.
According to Walker, Ebel had multiple gun magazines with him, although Walker could not tell me their capacity. Jeff Kramer of the El Paso sheriff’s department also declined to provide information about the capacity of the gun magazines (and about various other details), saying “it’s not information that we’re sharing” because the Clements murder is “still an active investigation.” (On its web page, Smith & Wesson advertises 9 mm handguns that come factory standard with magazines ranging from seven to seventeen rounds, depending on the model.)
The law that Hickenlooper signed grandfathers in possession of larger-capacity magazines. If Ebel’s girlfriend had one or more gun magazines that held more than fifteen rounds, she would have been legally barred from transferring them under the law—but that would not have prevented Ebel from stealing them, nor would it have prevented her from illegally giving them to Ebel.
Regardless of whether Ebel used magazines with a capacity of fifteen, seventeen, or some other number—or whether he had used a revolver—he would have been equally lethal. To briefly retrace Ebel’s horrific crimes, on March 17 of this year Ebel murdered a pizza delivery man, inflicting “several gunshot wounds.” Then Ebel, reportedly dressed in a pizza delivery uniform (apparently taken from the murdered man), murdered Clements at his home. On March 21 in Texas, Ebel shot a sheriff’s deputy three times (thankfully not fatally), then led police on a high-speed chase and shootout.
According to Walker, Ebel “fired many, many rounds” during the shootout while “holding his left hand out” of his car window and “shooting at officers.” Walker added that “officers assumed he was reloading his weapon” at various points. This is the part of Ebel’s crime spree where his capacity to shoot many rounds made a difference, putting officers’ lives at risk. However, as Walker noted, “if you’re a prolific weapon handler, you can probably rotate those magazines out fairly quickly”—so the capacity of the magazines made little or no difference. The crime was stopped when law enforcement agents carrying their own semiautomatic handguns shot Ebel, killing him.
Of course, advocates of stricter gun laws often want far more severe laws than those Hickenlooper signed, including laws authorizing the confiscation of all handguns and all semiautomatic guns. However, such laws would not prevent vicious and well-connected criminals such as Ebel from obtaining their guns of choice on the black market. What such laws would do is disarm millions of peaceable Americans who own guns for self-defense—and who use guns for self-defense at least thousands of times every year.
But, in terms of public safety, the real story is not about the guns Ebel used or how he obtained them. The real story is about how Colorado governmental agencies utterly failed to perform their jobs adequately, releasing Ebel from prison prematurely and then allowing him to go on the run for days without a serious government response.
Why are those facts relevant? The new gun laws that Hickenlooper signed redirect scarce government resources away from the task of tracking violent criminals and keeping them off the streets, to the task of investigating and tracking peaceable gun owners who are no threat to anyone. Every minute that Colorado law enforcement agents spend looking into the guns and gun magazines of peaceable people, is a minute they are not spending targeting violent criminals. With that in mind, look at some of the additional facts surrounding Ebel’s crimes.
As 9 News reports, Ebel served “eight years [in prison] for a number of offenses, including breaking into a car and a home, and car-jacking and pistol whipping a man in Adams County.” Ebel was an extremely vicious man with a well-known background of violent crime.
While in prison, 9 News continues, Ebel punched a prison guard—a crime that was supposed to extend his sentence by an additional four years. Instead, because of a “clerical error,” the Colorado prison system released the violent criminal Ebel four years too soon, on January 28 of this year.
Do we seriously want to tie up government resources with technical violations of ambiguous laws pertaining to the number of rounds in peaceable citizens’ gun magazine, when we can’t even trust the Colorado government to keep violent felons behind bars for their legally mandated sentences? The government’s “clerical error” directly contributed to the murder of Clements. For the sake of public safety, we should demand that the government get its priorities in order, rather than squander government resources pursuing peaceable gun owners.
But the details about Ebel’s crime spree get worse—far worse. After the government prematurely released Ebel from prison due to a “clerical error,” Ebel broke his ankle bracelet and went on the run—while the government effectively did nothing. As the Denver Post reports, on March 14 the contractor overseeing the operation of Ebel’s ankle bracelet received a “tamper alert.” The contractor “notified Ebel’s parole officer about the tamper alert” on the morning of March 15—two days before Ebel murdered the pizza delivery man.
So what did the government do about the fact that a vicious criminal was on the loose? Officials with the Department of Corrections assumed “for several days that Ebel’s device might simply have malfunctioned,” while the contractor “repeatedly [left] messages asking him to voluntarily report to their offices,” the Post reports.
We might reasonably ask: Given the government does not even have the resources (or, judging from additional facts reported by the Denver Post, the competence) to keep track of felons known to be viciously violent when they violate the terms of their parole, why should we ask the government to redirect resources to keeping track of peaceable gun owners?
The facts get worse still. Ebel is known to have been involved with a violent gang of white supremacists called the 211 Crew. In the Denver Post’s words, the Department of Corrections admits that “in Colorado, 2,075 prisoners have been identified as active members of a gang.” Why are there any “active” gang members in Colorado’s prisons? The fact that there are over two thousand of them illustrates that Colorado government is not adequately handling its core functions of protecting public safety.
A recent Denver Post article offers the latest disturbing facts:
An El Paso County judge went into hiding earlier this month, bought a gun and was placed under police protection after being warned that 211 Crew prison gang leaders had ordered a “hit” against him in retaliation for his part in the investigation into the slaying of prisons chief Tom Clements, according to a source familiar with the case.
This raises the likelihood that the murder of Clements too was related to gang violence. Indeed, the Denver Post reports:
The founder of the 211 Crew protected Evan Ebel after a rival prison gang targeted the white supremacist soldier for violence at Sterling Correctional Facility. That left the young gang member with a debt authorities suspect he repaid by killing prisons chief Tom Clements.
Let us summarize these facts. Colorado’s prisons contain thousands of “active” gangsters who violently “target” each other while in prison. One of these gangs is the 211 Crew, a group of violent white supremacists that included Ebel, that sent a Colorado judge into hiding, and that likely ordered the murder of Clements—the head of the Department of Corrections. Even though Ebel violently assaulted a prison guard—a crime for which he was supposed to serve an additional four years—the government’s “clerical error” released him from prison early. After Ebel broke his ankle bracelet and went on the run, the government did nothing about it. Two days later, Ebel murdered a pizza delivery man for his uniform. Two days after that, Ebel murdered Clements at his home. Two days after that, Ebel nearly murdered a Texas law enforcement officer and attempted to murder many more.
In the midst of this chaos—of this fundamental incapacity of Colorado government to perform its central role of protecting the public from violent criminals—Colorado’s Democratic legislators and Colorado’s governor are largely concerned, not about cleaning up those obvious problems, but with redirecting government resources toward the tracking and monitoring of peaceable gun owners.
The priorities of those legislators and of the governor are worse than misplaced: They are insane.
Author and blogger Ari Armstrong edits the Free Colorado website