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Coroners’ inconsistent reports muddle efforts to understand shooting deaths

Published in The Colorado Springs Gazette on Aug. 23, 2014.

By Katharina Buchholz and April Nowicki
CU News Corps

In 2013, at least 547 people were killed by gunshot wounds in Colorado.

Last year, a 1-year-old toddler was shot and killed by her 22-year-old father after he had an argument with the girl’s mother in Westminster. A 12-year-old boy got his hands on a gun and used it to take his own life during a family vacation. A 67-year-old man killed his 81-year-old wife and shot himself with a rifle in Delta County.

CU News Corps reporters found these details among hundreds of public records kept by county coroners. The records provided valuable context to the total number of gun deaths, and could help shape a better understanding of why so many people die every year from gunshot wounds.

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Colorado Springs police reactivate death investigation amid inquiries on gun deaths

Published in The Colorado Springs Gazette on Aug. 23, 2014.

By April Nowicki
CU News Corps

Jeremiah Mieir, 26, died in his Colorado Springs apartment in October from what officials said appeared to be a self-inflicted gunshot to the mouth.

But no gun was found at the scene, no residue tests were run and the El Paso County coroner said the cause of death was undetermined.

The Colorado Springs police investigation went “inactive” a few months later; the last entry in the case report was Dec. 9 – shortly after Mieir’s mother, Kimberly Curtis, said she gave up her effort to get cellphone records she had obtained to the detective on the case. For months, those records went unexamined – until CU News Corps found Curtis while working on stories about gun deaths in Colorado.

Within weeks, the records were in the hands of police and by July the case was active again.

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Bullets or Bongs? – The law says Coloradans have to choose between their guns and their weed

Published in The Boulder Weekly on July 10, 2014.

by Kendall Brunette
CU News Corps

Because of a conflict between state marijuana statutes and federal gun laws, Colorado residents must choose between owning guns and using marijuana. Yet state law enforcement officials are virtually powerless to enforce the intersection where those conflicting laws meet.

Plus, Colorado’s marijuana users aren’t lining up at their local sheriff ’s office to turn in their guns.

Federal law prohibits Colorado’s legal marijuana users — medical and recreational — from owning or purchasing guns or ammunition.

According to Boulder County Sheriff Joe Pelle, however, law enforcement has no way of knowing about marijuana use and corresponding gun ownership unless someone self-reports or is arrested for another infraction.

“We initially had several people selfreport that they were medical marijuana users, and so we did not issue them a concealed carry weapon permit,” Pelle says. “But, we are not actively investigating if [permit holders] are marijuana users.”

By the Numbers

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Suicide gun-death number outpaces motor vehicle deaths

published in The Boulder Daily Camera on Dec. 1, 2013, in The Coloradoan on Nov. 23, 2013.

By Katharina Buchholz
CU News Corps

Gun deaths have outpaced motor vehicle fatalities in Colorado since 2009, but data from the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment indicate that Colorado has passed yet another death statistics milestone.

For the first time in 2012, suicides by firearm alone surpassed motor vehicle fatalities, with 457 Coloradans dying in fatal car crashes and 532 taking their own life using a gun. Gun suicides experienced their biggest increase in the past 12 years between 2011 and 2012, jumping up nearly 20 percent. Experts say many of these deaths are preventable, but that prevention requires framing suicide as a public health issue, not an insular problem.

motor vehicle gun suicide charts

“In motor vehicle accidents the type of intervention is clear. I think in suicide it is less clear in regards to that policy question,” said Shannon Breitzman, director of the Injury, Suicide and Violence Prevention Branch of the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment.

Colorado ranks 32nd in the nation for traffic fatalities per miles traveled, according to 2009 numbers from the U.S. Census Bureau. Yet, Colorado has the eighth-highest suicide rate per capita, according to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.

All states with higher rates of suicide are also located in the American West.

“In these Western states, you pull yourself up by your bootstraps,” Breitzman said. “There is a lot of value placed on being independent instead of being interdependent.”

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Well-armed young women help spike growing gun-ownership numbers

published in The Boulder Daily Camera on Dec. 1, 2013 and in The Coloradoan on Nov. 24.

By Kendall Brunette
CU News Corps

The Well Armed Woman — their slogan is “Where the Feminine and Firearm Meet” — advertises stylish purses designed for concealed carry.

Another online retailer, Pistols & Pumps — “Concealed and High Heeled” — offers pink camouflage hats and bra-mounted holsters.

Gungoddess.com — the name, apparently, is sufficient — sells a variety of “gun bling,” including leopard-print handgun grips and zebra-print ear protection.

Such items may seem odd to some, but these retailers understand their customer base — a group of  young, strong, determined and armed women.  And just because their bullets may be fired from pistols with rhinestone-studded grips doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be taken seriously.

These women are among a growing population of gun owners who fiercely fight for their right to own and carry a gun for self-protection.

“A woman with pepper spray is smart, a woman who takes self-defense is prepared, but a woman with a gun is scary,” said Rachael Makowski, a 25-year-old nanny in Westminster, Colo.  “And when it comes down to my life or theirs, I want them to be just as afraid of me as I am of them.”

Self-reported gun ownership — among both men and women in the U.S. — is the highest it has been since 1993.

A 2011 Gallup poll found that 47 percent of all Americans claimed to have a gun in their home. Of those Americans, 43 percent of women reported they live with guns in their homes. In February 2013, Gallup reported that 15 percent of all American women personally owned a gun.

In Colorado, the number of FBI background checks for gun purchases over the first 10 months of 2013 — 433,482 — has already eclipsed last year’s total by nearly 20,000.FBI chart

Further, according to data compiled by CU News Corps and provided by 46 county coroners across Colorado, women 18-34 years old, more often than any other group of women, are the victims of gun violence.  According to gun educators, women of this age demographic are also the people most commonly enrolling in gun education classes.

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Rural Colorado county educates kids about gun safety

This story ran in The Boulder Daily Camera on Dec. 1, 2013

By April Nowicki
CU News Corps

In remote Hinsdale County, in the southwest part of Colorado, Danielle Worthen was concerned. Her 5-year-old daughter went to daycare in the home of another family that Worthen knew kept guns in the house.

The Worthen family didn’t own any guns, and Worthen wasn’t sure how to most effectively educate her daughter about guns and firearm safety. She approached Hinsdale County Sheriff Ron Bruce with her dilemma.

“I asked him if he would consider doing a rudimentary class exposing some of these young kids to guns,” Worthen said. “And he said, ‘I’ll talk to the [superintendent] and have a class, showing these kids, letting them hold a gun. Talk to them about the power and all that stuff.’”

Bruce organized the student firearm education class, and about 15 students from the Lake City Community School attended. That was 10 years ago.

Today, Lake City — the only town in Hinsdale County — is known as the most remote county in the U.S., designated so in 2007 by the U.S. Geological Survey.

Although gun ownership may seem ubiquitous there, gun violence is rare and no gun deaths have occurred in the past two years in Hinsdale County, which is 1,123 square miles – seven times the size of Denver County.

“It’s the same issues here [as in the bigger counties], it’s just that we all know each other,” Worthen said. “We know each other’s kids, everyone knows everyone’s names. You get more entrenched.”

More than half of the counties in Colorado are classified by the U.S. Census as “rural,” and though kids growing up in those places may be part of tighter-knit communities, they may also be more likely to run across a firearm in their home or in the home of a friend.

Rural Counties Map with non-responsive counties

More than 500 Coloradans killed themselves with guns in 2012, and some researchers say that gun safety education isn’t enough, because just the presence of a firearm increases the risk of suicide. In Colorado in 2012, 11 suicides by gun took the lives of people age 18 or under, according to the U.S. Census.

CU News Corps, an investigative journalism project at the University of Colorado Boulder, is collecting statistics about gun deaths in Colorado. So far in 2013, in the 46 counties that have reported gun deaths, 195 people have killed themselves using a gun. Of those, five were teens age 18 or under. All five were residents of counties classified as “urban” by the state demography office. Seventeen counties have reported zero gun deaths, and all were in rural areas.

Worthen and her husband are confident that their now 15-year-old daughter, an only child, is well-informed. They still do not own any guns but have gone with friends to a shooting range in the past year. Worthen said that both she and her teen daughter feel more comfortable shooting a .22 rifle than a pistol.

Ten of Colorado’s 63 counties are considered urban and are home to 75 percent of the population. The population density in those areas contributes to the higher suicide rate, but rural officials say initiating gun safety education for kids has potential to support a culture that can help keep communities safer. Strong family connections may also be a factor that help keep rural area gun violence and suicides down, they say.

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At least 104 Colorado gun deaths in 2013; maybe more

By CU News Corps

At least 104 Coloradans died due to some form of gun violence through the end of April 2013.

Those numbers are based on an analysis by the CU News Corps, which is attempting to track all gun deaths in media reports and by contacting Colorado county coroners’ offices. The News Corps, a class of University of Colorado Boulder journalism students, is publishing information on each gun death in 2013 on a website, coloradogundeaths.com.

By documenting these individual deaths, the News Corps hopes to provide meaningful data to inform the discourse concerning gun use in Colorado and the nation. Recognizing and memorializing each victim is also vital to the project’s mission.

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Graph: Colorado gun deaths 2013 by type of death

Below is a pie graph representing the types of gun-related deaths through April 30. This tally of 104 gun deaths does not include Adams and some smaller counties where coroner’s didn’t respond to our requests for information.

Gun deaths, homicides rise in El Paso County in 2013

By CU News Corps

El Paso County is leading the state in gun deaths so far this year.

In fact, El Paso County and Colorado Springs are both seeing an increase in homicides over the same time last year.

El Paso County accounts for 24 of the 104 gun deaths tracked by the CU News Corps in 2013.

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Graph: Colorado gun deaths 2013 by age

Below is a graph of 104 gun-related death through April 30. The total is likely low because Adams and some smaller counties have yet to respond to requests for information.