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The Planned Parenthood shooting in Colorado Springs, explained

A police officer at the scene of the Planned Parenthood shooting in Colorado Springs.
A police officer at the scene of the Planned Parenthood shooting in Colorado Springs.
Justin Edmonds/Getty Images

In November, a man allegedly walked into a Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado Springs and shot at least 12 people, killing three and wounding nine others during a five-hour standoff with police.

The suspect, Robert Lewis Dear Jr., turned himself in to police after the lengthy clash, in which officers and the gunman exchanged fire as people were evacuated and tried to flee. At a hearing in state court Wednesday, he publicly declared his guilt, describing himself as "a warrior for the babies," he said, "I am guilty. There will be no trial."

The shooting, then, seemed most significantly motivated by Dear's opposition to abortion — a sentiment that has led to previous attacks on abortion clinics around the country. But beyond abortion, the attack has also led to yet more rounds of discussions about guns, another very touchy political issue in America.

The Planned Parenthood shooting: what we know

An armored police vehicle transports hostages out of the area of the Planned Parenthood shooting.
An armored police vehicle transports hostages out of the area of the Planned Parenthood shooting.
Justin Edmonds/Getty Images

The shooting and subsequent standoff began at the Planned Parenthood Colorado Springs Westside Health Center just before noon Mountain time. Throughout the following five hours, the gunman exchanged fire with police, while officers tried to evacuate those still inside. Dear then allegedly turned himself in, according to police.

The gunman shot and killed Ke'Arre Stewart, an Iraq War veteran; Garret Swasey, a police officer; and Jennifer Markovsky, the mother of two children, according to the New York Times. He wounded nine others, and the attack trapped hundreds more people in the shopping center around the Planned Parenthood clinic.

Dear later described himself as "a warrior for the babies," invoking his opposition to abortion as a reason for the shooting. Previously, he reportedly called for "no more baby parts" — a potential reference to Planned Parenthood's donation of fetal tissues for medical research — during a rambling interview with police. One ex-wife, Barbara Mescher Michaux, also told NBC News that Dear had vandalized Planned Parenthood clinics in the past. And another ex-wife, Pamela Ross, told the New York Times that Dear was politically conservative, religious (he read the Bible "cover to cover to cover"), against abortion, and prone to flashes of anger — including one instance in which he allegedly locked his ex-wife out of the house, and hit her and pushed her out when she tried to get back in through a window.

Attacks on abortion facilities aren't rare. Although shootings aren't common, acts of arson and other types of attacks occur quite often, according to the National Abortion Federation.

The shooting also came at a particularly contentious time for the abortion debate, following the release of undercover videos earlier this year.

The Planned Parenthood videos increased scrutiny on the organization

Over the summer, the Center for Medical Progress, an anti-abortion group, released a series of edited videos accusing Planned Parenthood of "selling baby parts" — claiming that the organization sold fetal tissue to medical researchers for profit, when it's only allowed to do so without making a profit.

Several state and federal investigations looked into the videos, finding no evidence that CMP's claims were true. The videos were deceptively edited, leaving out multiple instances in which Planned Parenthood employees said, contrary to CMP's claims, that fetal tissue research shouldn't be a revenue stream or a profit maker.

Nonetheless, the videos led to another round of heated debates over abortion, with Congress even threatening to shut down the federal government to defund Planned Parenthood. But the videos didn't actually seem to change people's mind about the organization and abortion in general: Those who believe that life begins at conception and abortion is murder, and that the use of those murdered babies' tissue for medical research is abhorrent, mostly continued to hold those beliefs, while those who believe life begins later on and that a woman has the right to choose whether to have an abortion — and whether to donate fetal tissue to science — also by and large maintained those beliefs.

"This is an appalling act of violence targeting access to health care and terrorizing skilled and dedicated health care professionals"

Still, the videos led to some fiery political rhetoric. Republican presidential candidate Carly Fiorina infamously claimed that one of the videos showed "a fully formed fetus on the table, its heart beating, its legs kicking, while someone says we have to keep it alive to harvest its brain." While Planned Parenthood employees do work with fetal tissue, Fiorina seems to have been referring to a different mini documentary series produced by CMP, called Human Capital, that uses stock footage of a fetus kicking on the table — although the footage isn't from inside a Planned Parenthood facility.

Many people blame this type of overheated rhetoric surrounding Planned Parenthood for the shooting, claiming that the demonization of abortion inspired Dear's violent acts. Planned Parenthood Rocky Mountains CEO and president Vicki Cowart, for one, said in a statement that the attack was "motivated by opposition to safe and legal abortion," adding, "This is an appalling act of violence targeting access to health care and terrorizing skilled and dedicated health care professionals."

But many Americans genuinely believe that abortion is murder, and it is well within their rights to speak out against something they find truly vile. Opponents of abortion rights also condemned the alleged shooter: Republican presidential candidate Mike Huckabee characterized the shooting as "domestic terrorism," and Republican rival and Sen. Ted Cruz said it was "a multiple murder" carried out by "a deranged individual."

Even some liberals have argued that anti-abortion rhetoric should not be blamed for the shooting. As Kevin Drum of Mother Jones put it, "Political speech is often fiery. It's often supposed to be fiery, and there's always a risk that a few unhinged listeners will react in extreme ways. That's a chance we have to take. If we rein in political speech to a level where there's literally no risk of anyone reacting badly, we'll have nothing but pabulum. Robert L. Dear might very well have been motivated to attack Planned Parenthood because he heard about them selling fetal tissue, but that doesn't mean it was wrong for activists to bring this to the public's attention."

Nevertheless, the shooting comes at a particularly sensitive time for the pro-choice movement, which has suffered major losses over the past several years as Republicans have seized control of more state governments.

Anti-abortion restrictions have been on the rise in the past few years

Over the past several years, state lawmakers across the country — empowered by a wave of Republican electoral victories — have passed all sorts of new restrictions on abortion services. According to the Guttmacher Institute, states have adopted 231 new restrictions after the 2010 midterm elections, which put more opponents of abortion rights in power.

State lawmakers passed 231 abortion restrictions between 2011 and 2014. Javier Zarracina/Vox

The restrictions come in many forms, including bans on abortions after a certain period of time, bans on buffer zones around abortion facilities, waiting period requirements, mandatory counseling for abortions, targeted regulations on abortion providers, and restrictions on public and private insurance coverage of abortions. In general, the idea is to make abortion services much more difficult to access, although abortion can't be outright banned due to the Supreme Court decision in Roe v. Wade that legalized it.

The number of abortion restrictions passed in the past few years shows that abortion is, as it's long been, a touchy political issue in America. As with all contentious issues, there's always the possibility one will take their views too far and lash out in extremist ways — such as this shooting.

Beyond abortion rights, the Planned Parenthood shooting led to debate about yet another heated political issue: guns.

Under some definitions, the Planned Parenthood shooting was another mass shooting

A police officer stands outside a Planned Parenthood facility in New York City following the Colorado Springs shooting.
A police officer stands outside a Planned Parenthood facility in New York City following the Colorado Springs shooting.
Andrew Burton/Getty Images

The Planned Parenthood attack can be viewed as a mass shooting. But whether the attack technically was a mass shooting depends by and large on the definition you use for these types of tragedies.

Some definitions, for example, only count an event as a mass shooting when four or more people are killed. Under other definitions, only four or more people have to be shot, although not necessarily killed. Some other definitions use different casualty counts. (Vox's Dylan Matthews ran through the debate in a previous explainer.)

Under the definition used by the Mass Shooting Tracker (and Vox's map), the Planned Parenthood shooting does count as a mass shooting, since four or more people were shot. But it would not count as a mass shooting under other definitions, including those used by some government agencies, because fewer than four people were killed.

But this debate is extremely arbitrary. A shooting is a shooting. The debate over which definition to use misses the broader problem with gun violence in America: Compared with other developed countries, the US has extraordinary levels of gun violence.

America's levels of gun violence are unique in the developed world

America has far more gun homicides than other developed countries.

Javier Zarracina/Vox

No other developed country in the world has anywhere near the same rate of gun violence as America. The US has nearly six times the gun homicide rate as Canada, more than seven times as Sweden, and nearly 16 times as Germany, according to UN datacompiled by the Guardian. (These gun deaths are a big reason America has a much higher overall homicide rate, which includes non-gun deaths, than other developed nations.)

In fact, no other developed country comes close to the levels of gun violence, including suicides, or gun ownership that America has, as this chart from Tewksbury Lab shows:

America has more guns — and more gun deaths.

Tewksbury Lab

The correlation this chart demonstrates — more guns mean more gun deaths — has been backed by a lot of research. Whether at the state or country level, reviews of the evidence by the Harvard School of Public Health's Injury Control Research Center have consistently found that places with more guns have more deaths after controlling for variables like socioeconomic factors and other crime. "Within the United States, a wide array of empirical evidence indicates that more guns in a community leads to more homicide," David Hemenway, the Injury Control Research Center's director, wrote in Private Guns, Public Health.

This is widely believed by experts to be the consequence of America's relaxed policy approach to and culture of guns: Making more guns more accessible means more guns, and more guns mean more gun deaths. Researchers have found that this is true not just with gun homicides but also with suicides, domestic violence, and even violence against police.

As President Barack Obama told reporters after the shooting, "This just doesn't happen in other countries."

At the same time, other developed nations have had some big successes curtailing gun violence by reducing the number of guns. After a 1996 mass shooting in Port Arthur, Australia, killed 35 people and wounded 23 more, lawmakers passed new restrictions on guns and imposed a mandatory buyback program that essentially confiscated people's guns, seizing at least 650,000 firearms.

According to one review of the evidence by Harvard researchers. Australia's firearm homicide rate dropped by about 42 percent in the seven years after the law passed, and its firearm suicide rate fell by 57 percent. Although it's hard to gauge how much of this was driven by the buyback program, researchers argue it likely played some role: "First, the drop in firearm deaths was largest among the type of firearms most affected by the buyback. Second, firearm deaths in states with higher buyback rates per capita fell proportionately more than in states with lower buyback rates."

Still, similar measures would be very difficult to pass in America, a nation in which gun culture and ownership are tremendously ingrained. And gun owners are backed by a powerful lobby: the National Rifle Association. Combined, these forces have stopped any serious gun legislation from passing at the federal level — although some states have passed new restrictions in the past few years.

But given the research, America's policies and attitudes toward guns have clear, deadly costs — including, perhaps, more events like the Planned Parenthood shooting.

Watch: America's biggest gun problem is the one we don't talk about

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