Out of Control: Gunfire on the Trail
“Should we blow our whistles?” she asks, her tense voice revealing near panic. Inside, I’m kicking myself for bringing her here, how could I have forgotten my other visits to the area? Bullets were flying then also. “I’m not sure,” I reply “If someone is foolish enough to shoot towards a hiking corridor, perhaps alerting them to our exact location would be a mistake – they could be on something.” Regardless, we blow our whistles multiple times, loudly enough to temporarily deafen ourselves. Rapid gunfire clatters unabated as we hastily seek an alternate route back to the vehicle.
Only a handful of hours earlier, I guided my trusty 1995 Ford F-150 off of Gold Camp Road, an old mining route from Colorado Springs to Cripple Creek, and onto rock-strewn FR-379. My mother-in-law and I were excited to hike to the summit of Mount Rosa, perhaps the most classical looking peak in the Colorado Springs skyline. Nearing the trailhead, we came to a clearing in the forest, and noticed a young couple with two little kids preparing for a hike. Seeing a large parking area, an offical looking gap in the fence-line, and a double-track heading across the field towards Mt. Rosa, we decided to park and take the same route.
“Tat-tat-tat-tat-tat-tat!” Gunshots tear into the silence below us to the west, in the vicinity of the parking area. We all grimace. “Here they go,” say our new friends. “Unfortunately, this is normal.”
A couple hours later, the six of us marvel at the 360-degree views from the Summit of Rosa. North and west of us towers Pikes Peak with Colorado Springs, the plains and Kansas stretching in the morning haze to the east. The exceptional Sangre de Cristo Mountain Range, stand sentinel, snowpacked to the south and west. The energetic father wanders off the summit proper to look for the cave Zebulon Pike allegedly stayed in when he erroneously climbed Mt. Rosa while trying to reach the summit of Pikes Peak. My mother-in-law and I settle down for a snack and some pictures.
Shortly thereafter, while the kids are investigating a large gathering of ladybugs, the parents stand chatting with us about the virtues of the Sangre de Cristos and hiking available in the area. “Tat-tat-tat-tat-tat-tat!” Gunshots tear into the silence below us to the west, in the vicinity of the parking area. We all grimace. “Here they go,” say our new friends. “Unfortunately, this is normal.”
Mental images from my first visit to the area, two years earlier, come to mind. A friend and I, took the truck up Gold Camp in the wintertime. We wanted to attempt Mt. Rosa in the snow. Snow depths prevented us from driving up FR-379 so we parked off the side of Gold Camp Road and trudged up FR-379 in 2-3 foot deep snow.
The setting was serene, and the woods silent under a fresh blanket of snow. Winter’s peace was shattered as we headed out a few hours later. We were greeted by a group of shooters standing alongside their running vehicles, unleashing nonstop gunfire into the woods. They barely acknowledged us (even when we informed them one of their associates up the road needed help extricating his vehicle from the huge ruts he recently tore into 379) and never ceased firing while we walked by.
Arriving back at Gold Camp Road we were surprised to find a couple standing outside of their vehicle, firing point blank at the top of a Kevlar helmet lying on the road. A screaming baby carried on inside the vehicle while the couple obliviously continued their experiment on the main road.
“It shouldn’t be like this,” I think. A prominent landmark should be safe to explore.
Back in the present, after saying our good-byes with the hiking family, my mother-in-law and I head back towards the parking area. The more we descend, the closer the gunfire sounds. Not the “plink, plink” of the target shooting I grew up doing, rather incessant, automatic gunfire. Turning left onto the double-track becomes too risky, since it arcs around a small ridge towards the firing. We reroute to the official trailhead and backtrack to the cars via a short walk on the forest road, all the while wondering if the young parents with their children would walk into gunfire on the double-track.
At the trailhead, three vehicles are parked along the clearing with three separate sets of shooters firing away. Two sets shooting into the hillside below Mt. Rosa, and one set of shooters firing across the double-track into the far right edge of a low ridge, the same ridge we had crossed behind, blowing our whistles. Disturbed, I approach the three shooters firing at the hiking corridor.
“Do you guys realize you are shooting at a hiking corridor?”
“Really? Nah, this is our first time here.”
“You could have shot us, we hiked in on the double-track you are firing across. It wraps around the edge of the ridge your target is set up on. There is a young family with two small kids still hiking.”
“Huh,” came the disinterested reply “I’ll go tell my friends.” No concern. No apology.
As we exit the area, the three shooters appear to resume firing. Multiple vehicles with passengers attired in camouflage are heading in towards the trailhead area. This is a small stretch of FR-379, only representing two or three miles of actual road. A group of bikers have halted their ride to discuss whether they should proceed up 379, towards the gunfire.
“I never want to come back here,” my mother-in-law indicates. “It shouldn’t be like this,” I think. A prominent landmark should be safe to explore.
Armed and Senseless: The Rule, Not the Exception
A phone call to the forest service confirmed suspicions, the woods near Colorado Springs are under assault. According to the ranger at the other end of the line, 200 trees were gunned down during the winter of 2011-2012 along this small stretch of FR-379. An older online article quotes the same ranger saying “acres” of trees have been gunned down on nearby Mt. Herman, the same mountain on which a coworker of mine had to take cover behind a fallen log to avoid being shot off his mountain bike. The same online article mentions the author needing to duck and run to avoid gunfire on a marked trail near Mt. Rosa, an experience I’ve encountered on a run through the same area.
This experience is not unique to Mt. Rosa as evidenced by the endemic bands of (often inebriated) shooters roaming the forests. Displaying no respect for life, such characters are destroying countless acres of forest via prolific littering and unbelievable projectile destruction, literally gunning down the trees. This behavior gives responsible shooters a bad name, ruins our natural resources, endangers other recreators, and indicates a need for community action. There is little the Forest Service can do. Signs prohibiting shooting are shot to bits within days and even hours. Locations families should be able to enjoy for camping and sight seeing are choked with trash and frequented by wild late night parties.
…our populace is already armed to the teeth and scores of militias freely exist – many of them keeping up their skills battling our national forests.
The size of the forest compared to the Forest Service staff prohibits real monitoring. The best hope, as indicated by the ranger seems to be rerouting the shooters. A new public shooting range is opening on nearby Ft. Carson. The Forest Service hopes many of the shooters will start using the range since the only other range, on Rampart Range Road, was closed when someone was accidentally killed there.
Hoping disorderly citizens will leave the unmonitored woods for an orderly, monitored shooting range seems futile. This may be the Forest Service’s best hope, but it’s not a good solution. Someone is going to be killed or injured in our woods. The forest itself is being massacred by military-grade weapons in the hands of irresponsible owners.
A Brief Look at the Facts
Gun control is rightfully an important discussion in the United States, but what about gun use and responsibility, especially in the national forests? Some facts about Americans and guns :
- 40-45% of Americans own at least one gun
- In 2011 the gun industry was a 31 billion dollar industry
- Americans own an estimated 270-300 million guns
- Of the 23 wealthiest countries in the world, 87% of all children killed were American
- Of those 23 wealthiest countries, 80% of child gun deaths were American
- The US is ranked #1 in the world in guns owned per 100 people, averaging 88.8 guns per 100 with war-torn Yemen in second at 54.8 for every 100 residents
Many fear our elected officials intend to ignore constitutional rights to bear arms. However, it is abundantly clear, our populace is already armed to the teeth and scores of militias freely exist – many of them keeping up their skills battling our national forests. Controlling future gun sales is worth discussing, but responsibly using the guns we already own is also worth discussing.
Taking Ownership: Responsibility
Strict oversight by the government might not be as bad as those who fear a tyrannical government posit (our officials are elected by us after all), but the chaos in our woods indicates societal considerations. A recent The Week magazine and Nicholas Thompson point out, “Violence isn’t the product of weak gun laws. It’s much deeper than that. It’s time to look hard at ‘America’s culture of violence.'”
This point is valid. Countless statistics reveal America to be incredibly violence-oriented, heavily armed, and self-destructive. Our games, movies, and media fixate on violence. Unstable minds know their outrageous acts of violence, Sandy Hook Elementary being the most recent, will bring global recognition. We are gunning each other down every 20 minutes.
There is no perfect solution, but there can be solutions.
Since so many of us own guns, it may be unfair to assume those wrecking our woods are simply “other” – a particular breed of person. While there may be commonalities in the make-up of such individuals, they are only practicing what the greater culture allows and, typically, glorifies in the media. In other words, “we” are all to blame, not just “them”. Education, monitoring, and confrontation seem to require a communal effort, not just an under-staffed Forest Service.
Most of us can find common ground, we don’t want to get hurt. We don’t want our kids to get hurt. We enjoy exploring the landscapes we live in.
Would it be possible to approach the issue with heavy media saturation similar to cigarette and meth ad campaigns?
Can our culture quit glamorizing violence and condemn those who recklessly destroy resources and lives through improper handling of firearms?
Can local communities take ownership over their natural resources and aggressively promote education regarding respectful use of these resources?
We humans care about peer pressure. Public and societal pressure needs to increase regarding the proper use of firearms in respect to children, natural resources and other people in general.
Clear boundaries for proper and improper firearm use and locations also need to exist. In my discussion with the shooter near Mt. Rosa, neither of us could figure out whether the double-track trail with the official looking parking and entry was actually an official trail. In this case, it is the shooter’s responsibility to exercise extreme caution. However, more rigid guidelines about where shooting is or is not allowed could be helpful. Posted signs may have indicated this, but they were all gunned into illegibility.
Obviously, the issues are complex and I’m no expert, but I do have a voice. A societal reform regarding gun responsibility and use seems to be part of the puzzle. Guns have no place near hiking corridors, and natural landmarks other than on the hips of properly trained and licensed operators. Education and enforcement need to happen, violators should be stigmatized and prosecuted. Examples should be made.
There is no perfect solution, but there can be solutions. Somehow, we must each stand up and find resolve.
Let’s discuss. Have you experienced reckless gunfire and abuse of natural resources in your area?
Are you a gun enthusiast, what are your thoughts on responsible gun use?
Do any communities already have a good model for dealing with these issues?
Please share in the comments below, respectfully.