DENVER -- Among those in the crowded ballroom of a downtown Denver hotel Monday were two men whose lives in advocacy had never before brought them together on the same stage: James S. Brady, founder of Handgun Control Inc., and Wayne LaPierre, executive vice president of the National Rifle Association. They came together in a fervent effort to raise awareness for Colorado Project Exile, which targets illegal guns and puts the weight of federal prosecution behind firearm violations.
The assemblage of politicians, law enforcement officers, community leaders and advocacy groups convened by Tom Strickland, U.S. attorney for Colorado, was in itself remarkable. The fact that despite their disparate agendas, they had gathered in support of a gun control initiative was, according to Denver Mayor Wellington Webb, ''a stroke of genius.''
To many in Colorado -- viewed by some groups around the nation as the current Ground Zero for gun control issues -- the shared stage was a hopeful sign that in the wake of last April's Columbine shootings the issue of gun violence would be seriously addressed.
To others, including a small group of vocal NRA members who pledged to tear up their membership cards, the sight of an NRA executive clasping hands with the leader of group that advocates strict gun control was an unholy alliance not to be tolerated.
Brady, the former White House press secretary who was shot in the head during an assassination attempt on Ronald Reagan in 1981, spoke of the need to control guns so that the number of victims of gun violence could be reduced. ''This is a club for which we don't need new members,'' he said.
LaPierre, ignoring boos from the audience, offered effusive praise for Project Exile, which was first launched in Richmond, Va., in 1997 and has been adopted by five states and numerous cities. The highly regarded program coordinates the efforts of local, state and federal law enforcement officials and is credited with helping cut Richmond's homicide rate in half. Authorities also say many drug dealers in Richmond, alerted to the crackdown, no longer carry guns.
''I look at today as creating an atmosphere of peace,'' LaPierre said. ''This program is the most common sense program of all. It's the one program that's proven that can deliver an immediate and dramatic reduction of the rate of crime delivered with guns. I'm here today because I want violent criminals who touch guns, drug dealers who touch guns, violent juveniles who touch guns to know that the NRA is their worst enemy.''
The NRA, which gave $100,000 to the Richmond project, announced Monday it will donate $25,000 to Colorado's effort. State officials are concentrating on warning young offenders that they could do time in federal prison for various gun violations.
Actually, in contrast to the symbolic coming-together Monday, elsewhere in Colorado polarization on the gun issue seems to have increased. Recently, a county sheriff was voted out of office after being targeted by gun owners' groups; local organizers of a march for stricter gun laws have been harassed; and the state Legislature has rejected three of five gun control bills before it.
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