Gunman kills three at US family planning center
An usually busy area of snow-covered Colorado Springs was placed on lockdown into the early evening, just one day after millions of Americans celebrated the Thanksgiving holiday, in the latest incident to shine a spotlight on gun violence in the United States.
Mayor John Suthers paid tribute to police for hauling in the gunman without further bloodshed at the Planned Parenthood building, where people scrambled into a “safe room” for cover.
A police officer was among the dead, he said, while nine others — among them five police — were wounded, though none seriously.
“While this was a terrible, terrible tragedy, it could have been much worse if not for the reactions of first responders,” Sutter told reporters.
The dead policeman was identified as Garrett Swasey, 44, a campus officer at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs who had raced to the scene of the shooting.
Officials later identified the suspect as 57-year old Robert Lewis Dear of South Carolina, local media including The Denver Post reported.
It was unclear whether Planned Parenthood — a major women’s health and family planning group — was the shooter’s target.
Abortion is one of the services Planned Parenthood provides for women, and the association has become a lightning rod for criticism by social conservatives.
Those critics, many of whom seek to outlaw abortion in the United States, have falsely accused Planned Parenthood of selling fetal organs and body parts for profit, and encouraging women to have abortions in order to expand such operations.
Vicki Cowart, president and CEO of Planned Parenthood Rocky Mountains, said she did not believe the center had been specifically targeted.
“We’re very pleased that our own security systems were operating at top-notch,” she added.
That included people rushing into the safe room.
“Some got out early throughout the afternoon, but those that didn’t were in a safe spot,” Cowart told CNN, adding that her initial information was that none of her staff or patients had been killed or injured.
– ‘Heroism’ –
The national Planned Parenthood office praised “the brave law enforcement officers who put themselves in harm’s way” in the incident.
“We are profoundly grateful for their heroism in helping to protect all women, men and young people as they access basic health care in this country,” the statement read.
Local media said that extra police were sent to protect the three other Planned Parenthood clinics in the Denver area.
Police initially feared that Dear might have brought explosives, and officers carefully combed the crime scene after the gunman surrendered.
Several people were inside the clinic at the time of the shooting on what had been a regular work day.
When the gunman opened fire, terrified people fled the building and into the cold, some crying and pleading for help.
The immediate area around the clinic was placed on lockdown and people were told to stay indoors.
A sheriff’s department SWAT team with at least one armored vehicle rushed to the scene.
Buckley said the shooter was armed with some kind of “long weapon” with a shoulder stock such as a rifle, and some witnesses reported hearing automatic fire.
– ‘Black Friday’ shopping crowds –
Quan Hoang, the owner of a nearby nail salon, told CNN that when he heard the gunfire he feared a robbery was under way at a bank in the shopping area, which would have been bustling with people looking for Black Friday sales bargains the day after Thanksgiving.
“And we see cops, SWAT, the bomb squad, a whole bunch of people just trying to take cover around the Planned Parenthood area,” he said by telephone.
“An officer came back in and said, ‘Is everyone safe?’ We asked him questions and he said they’ve barricaded him inside the Planned Parenthood and he was shooting out from the windows.”
A White House official said that President Barack Obama had been notified of the incident by his Homeland Security Advisor Lisa Monaco.