HOW FELIX SPARKS BEAT THE NRA
THE LAST BATTLE
“The content of your character is your choice. Day by day, what you choose, what you think, what you do – is who you become. Your integrity is your destiny….it is the light that guides your way.”[i]
Denver, Colorado, 15 March 1993.
THE 15-YEAR-OLD pulled out a 9mm semi-automatic and then pulled the trigger, aiming at a car full of teenagers. [ii] One of the bullets went through a rear window and hit 16-year-old Lee Pumroy in the back of the head. Lee’s twin brother was beside him in the backseat and held him as he died in his arms. The shooter, it was later reported, had been intent on hitting John Vigil, a 16-year-old passenger in Pumroy’s car, but had ended up killing Felix Sparks’ grandson instead.
It was a shattering blow to an old man who had already experienced far too much death and tragedy. Indeed, Lee Pumroy’s killing wounded Sparks more than any other loss, both during the war and in the almost fifty years since the guns had fallen silent in Europe.[iii]His twin grandsons had, in fact, lived for a while with Sparks after their mother Kim, one of Sparks’ three children, had divorced. Sparks’ eldest son Kirk had only seen his father cry once before, when his mother had been diagnosed with breast cancer, which thankfully she had survived.[iv]Sparks had once scolded Kirk himself for crying in public.[v]But now the tears came in torrents. According to grandson, Blair Lee Sparks, a Denver police officer, the killing opened a floodgate of suppressed grief. The heartache at losing so many men, suppressed for over fifty years, and now the pain of losing a loved one to the gun, was finally too much for any man to bear.
The grief could have easily killed Sparks. He was in fact recovering from his third heart operation when he learned his grandson had been killed. Incredibly, he had been in Miami, Arizona, attending his 95-year-old mother’s funeral, when he was told of the fatal shooting. At least he had been spared having to break the news to her. Days later, at his grandson’s funeral, he told mourners it was just not right that grandparents should outlive their grandchildren and began to weep once more.[vi]
The only other time grandson Blair had seen Sparks lose his composure was when a burglar had broken into Blair’s home. Sparks had heard about the burglary, strapped on his Colt .45, the same pistol he’d fired at Dachau, and turned up late at night in his pajamas. No one was going to hurt his family. The Denver police had finally managed to calm him down. “They were like: “Who’s this old guy from WWII in pajamas with a .45 strapped on?””[vii]
Not long after the funeral, Sparks wrote to his friend Jack Hallowell who now lived close by in Denver: “May God bless you for thinking of us in our time of grief and tragedy. Friends like you help us bear the pain of our broken hearts. While the funeral for our beloved grandson is over, the battle has just begun in hopes of sparing others from similar grief and tragedy. It will be my last battle.”[viii]
76-year-old Sparks was not content to mourn and grieve. As was in his nature, he would strike back. He was determined to stop the senseless slaughter of children on American streets by changing the law. At the ensuing trial, the teenage shooter, 16-year-old Phillip Trujillo, was convicted of murder.[ix]Sparks then stepped up his campaign to change the gun laws in Colorado. “I’m not the type to sit back and grieve, though we grieve a lot,” he said.[x]Yet he was surely fighting an impossible battle in Colorado where the right to carry a gun, whatever one’s age, had been considered a birth right since the state had been admitted to the Union in 1876.
Sparks formed a pressure group comprised of others who had lost loved ones. “Elect me your president,” he told one meeting of bereaved Denver parents. “I’ll put in $50,000, or whatever is required. I’ll work full time.”[xi]Sparks duly became the leader of PUNCH: People United No Children’s Handguns. To fight his case in the courts, he got himself readmitted to the bar in Colorado. Soon, the story of a highly decorated combat veteran railing against gun violence started to draw state and then nationwide attention. “It’s difficult to talk about this but I have to for the other kids,” Sparks told one reporter. “It was the other grandson who got me started because he was threatening to get everybody who had anything to do with it. I told him he couldn’t do that and he said: “Grandpa, I can get a gun anywhere.””[xii]
In the same interview, Sparks admitted that it wasn’t until he had started attending reunions in the Seventies that he had been able to talk about his time in combat. “The thing about war is it can give you a pretty low opinion of mankind,” Sparks added. “I don’t have a low opinion of mankind, but sometimes we sure do some stupid things.”[xiii]
Sparks called on friends on both sides of the political divide in Colorado and other influential figures to lend their support, distributed leaflets and placed ads in newspapers. At the height of his campaign, he told one reporter, his phone rang off the hook. Others provided almost $10,000 to support his cause. Among his backers were 132 men who had served with him in the 157th Infantry Regiment in WW11.[xiv]“Just within the past few weeks,” Sparks informed them on 30 June 1993, “several children have died or been seriously wounded by handguns in the hands of other children in the Denver area, including the deaths of two young boys who were in the 7th grade. A ten-month-old baby and a five year old were also shot.”[xv]
Sparks now encountered an enemy just as determined and canny as any he had faced in Europe – the NRA. “They figure everybody should be carrying a gun,” he declared. As he tried to rally support for a change in gun laws, he discovered how the NRA had quietly bought the support of politicians in Colorado and across America.[xvi] Sparks decided to do some lobbying of his own. He was a former Supreme Court Justice. He had commanded the Army National Guard in Colorado. After re-establishing the Colorado National Guard in the Forties, Sparks had continued his service, returning to active duty in 1962 during the Cuban Missile Crisis, and becoming Commanding General for ten years before retiring as a brigadier general in 1977.[xvii]
Eventually, the governor of Colorado, Roy Romer, agreed to a special session of the legislature, which would only consider what the Governor placed on the call – legislation that Sparks had written banning handgun possession for minors.[xviii]Sparks was not religious. He had not seen much evidence of God at work during the war.[xix]Nevertheless, he organized a prayer vigil the night before the legislature met to vote on his proposed law. He also called for a rally on the steps of the Capitol the day of the vote. Among those who attended was permanently disabled Jim Brady, the press secretary who had been wounded by a handgun during the attempted assassination of President Reagan in 1981.[xx]Sparks’ followers turned out in force and crowded into the Capitol’s galleries. The “God damn NRA” had relentlessly fought Sparks and his efforts “every step of the way” and had given money to no less than 35 Colorado legislators.[xxi]But Sparks’ proposed law passed all the same, such was the public mood and outcry over children killing other children with guns.[xxii] The law banned anyone under the age of eighteen from carrying a handgun. It remains on the books to this day. Before its was passed, a sixth-grader could walk into a classroom with a handgun in a backpack and nobody could do anything about it.
“We rolled right over that NRA,” said a victorious Sparks. “They didn’t know what hit them.”[xxiii]
As Sparks left the Capitol in Denver to go celebrate victory in his last battle, the mother of two teenage boys called out to him:
Sparks turned to her.
“I have two teenage boys,” said the woman. “I’ve been up here just watching. I know some of the things you’ve done, but I think this might be the most important job you’ve had.”
“It’s not finished yet,” he answered. “Just call me Felix.”[xxiv]
Indeed, the anguish was far from over. It was reported that although Phillip Tujillo had been incarcerated, some of Tujillo’s friends were threatening to murder the surviving twin grandson, Steve. They had even driven past Steve’s home, brandishing guns. According to Sparks, the threats had sent Steve crazy and he had been admitted to a psychiatric unit.[xxv]
Sparks’ efforts and those of many others across the US saw a steady decline in teenage homicide from handguns through the Nineties. But Friday night specials and other cheap handguns were no longer the only threats. Six years later, on 20 April 1999, between 11am and noon, just a few miles from where Lee Pumroy was gunned down, teenagers Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold used pump-action shotguns and submachine guns, more powerful than those used by Sparks and his men in combat, to slaughter thirteen classmates and injure twenty-four others at Columbine High School. Sparks’ calls for far stricter gun laws had been tragically vindicated.
To the end of his life, Sparks would continue to decry the easy access to guns in America, which have claimed far more lives than all the wars fought by Americans throughout the nation’s history. More young Americans had died from gun violence in the year his grandson was shot than had died under his command throughout the Second World War – when death was a daily occurrence. “We’ve got nuts and plenty of weapons,” said Sparks. “This business of letting everybody carry a concealed weapon is a form of insanity.”[xxvi]
[i] David Grossman, On Combat, p. 364.
[ii] Denver Post, 12 January 1994.
[iii] Blair Lee Sparks, interview with author.
[iv] Kirk Sparks, interview with author.
[v] Kirk Sparks, interview with author.
[vi] Blair Lee Sparks, Déjà Vu, Author House, Indiana, 2008, p.178
[vii] Blair Lee Sparks, interview with author.
[viii] Felix Sparks to Jack Hallowell, from Jack Hallowell’s private correspondence. Quoted courtesy of Jack Hallowell.
[ix] Denver Post, 12 January 1994.
[xi] Chicago Sun Times, 12 December 2003.
[xii] Rocky Mountain News, 14 September 1993.
[xiii] Rocky Mountain News, 14 September 1993.
[xiv] Chicago Sun Times, 12 December 1993.
[xv] Felix Sparks, 157th Infantry Association newsletter, 30 June 1993.
[xvi] Felix Sparks, Regis University interview.
[xvii] The Colorado Lawyer, October 1998, Vol. 27, No.10.
[xviii] Felix Sparks, Regis University interview.
[xix] Felix Sparks, interview with author.
[xx] Chicago Sun-Times, 12 December 1993.
[xxii] Chicago Sun Times, 12 December 1993.
[xxiii] Felix Sparks, Regis University interview.
[xxiv] Rocky Mountain News, September 14, 1993.
[xxv] Chicago Sun Times, 12 December 1993.
[xxvi] Felix Sparks, Regis University interview.