I Remember My First Mass Shooting Like It Was Yesterday…….

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It happened on a cold December night in 1993 Colorado when an ex-employee hid inside the bathroom of a local pizza chain and murdered four people after closing time. Three of them were teenagers. He shot another man as well, the bullet striking his jaw, sparing his life and labeling him “lucky” – an adjective forever accompanied by quotation marks.

The killer walked out with $1500, $300 for each life he took or tried to take.

One of the teenagers murdered went to my high school; for years, I played soccer with his sister and his parents were our coaches. I was sitting in my best friend’s Honda when I found out. A boy we knew pulled up beside us, rolled down his window, and shouted four words strung together in a single breath. The moment is so frozen in time that he may as well have been breaking the news of JFK’s death during an autumn parade.

It was right before Christmas and presents from the murdered sat under evergreen trees, hanging onto a normalcy that no longer existed. Everyone in the community was affected – those who knew the victims, those who didn’t. School was especially strange, an eerie feeling that smothered all of us like a cold, wet blanket. The hallways full but empty. A sense of sadness and fear and confusion.

None of us understood how this could happen. And none of us knew it was just the beginning.

Rocky Mountain Hijacked

I was born in Colorado and I have lived here my whole life. I can tell you where to find the best green chili. I take out-of-town guests to Casa Bonita. I can write a 5000-word essay on why the old Elitch Gardens was superior to the present one. I gauge directions by the location of the mountains. I wear flip-flops in the snow. I believe every season that the Broncos will win the Super Bowl. And I, like so many, have been within 30 miles of a mass shooting nearly every decade of my life.

In my teens, it was Chuck E. Cheese.

In my twenties, Columbine.

In my thirties, the Aurora movie theater.

In my forties, a grocery store.

So many in our country share a similar experience, whether it’s a massage studio in Atlanta, a concert in Las Vegas, a nightclub in Orlando, a Walmart in El Paso, or schools all across the country: The American Dream is again and again overshadowed by the American Nightmare. And every time tragedy strikes, our politicians take to social media, they condemn the senseless violence, they offer thoughts and prayers to the loved ones left behind.

And then they do nothing.

The Gun Debate

Renewed calls for gun control understandably always happen in the wake of a mass shooting (or, in this case, two mass shootings over the course of one week). And these discussions typically pit separate groups of people against each other: Those who want better gun control and those who don’t.

What I’ve noticed in paying attention to these debates is that those against better gun control need those of us for it to be anti-gun. They need us to want all firearms eliminated. They need us to insist on disarming everyone except the police. They need us to spit on the Second Amendment.

Because that is easy to argue against.

Yet so many gun control proponents believe in the right to bear arms, the right to self-protection, the necessity of gun ownership. We don’t, however, understand why assault weapons have to be so easy to obtain. And whenever we pose that question, no one seems to answer.

So, we pose another: When will enough ever be enough? And, again, the silence is deafening.

30-Minutes or Less?

In Colorado, it is easier for many people to get assault weapons than it is insurance, an apartment, or mental health care. It is often faster than opening a savings account, enrolling in school, or a trip to the dentist.

Common sense tells us that making it harder to get guns designed for mass casualties will make it harder to kill masses of people.

Will this make it more difficult for the law-abiding? Sure, but why does Average Joe Citizen need to get his hands on this type of firearm faster than he can an order from Grubhub?

In our nation, there are all sorts of things that require a stringent process, including getting a driver’s license, applying for loans, and adopting a rescue dog. Why should assault weapons be an exception?

Some will argue that these weapons are a constitutional right, giving them immunity to calls for action. Yet the very text of the Second Amendment includes the phrase “well regulated militia”. It’s wording that is, certainly, up for debate in terms of intention and, because the Constitution limits government control, it does seem unlikely that it was penned with executive authority in mind. But does anyone, regardless of interpretation, sincerely believe that the founding fathers hoped for easy access to assault weapons when they protected the use of muskets?

“Only a Good Guy with a Gun Stops a Bad Guy with a Gun”

One of the main arguments of those against gun control relies on the old fight fire with fire adage. “Only a good guy with a gun stops a bad guy with a gun,” they say. However, if we’re speaking about assault weapons, which seem to be – increasingly – the tools of choice for mass shooters, will a handgun really stop someone with munitions more deadly? Or does the argument evolve into a drastic one: “Only a good guy with an assault weapon stops a bad guy with an assault weapon?”

But the only way a good guy stops a bad guy is if the good guy is armed at the time of the shooting; their gun does them no favors locked at home in a safe.

So, what does that look like? Should we all carry assault weapons each time we go out in public? Should we take them on every errand, grabbing our wallet, our keys, and our AR-15 as we head out the door?

Do we eliminate gun-free zones so that good guys can be legally-armed in locations where so many of these shootings happen? Do we pull on body armor since murderers are wearing tactical gear and we need to be on an even field?

Do we walk around with our finger on the trigger so we can attempt to off-set the shooter’s insurmountable advantage afforded by the element of surprise? Do we ignore the fact that many mass shooters are unafraid to die and thus unlikely to be deterred by our armed presence?

Do we weep for those who perish in the exchange of friendly-fire as no one is able to tell the good guys from the bad? Do we stare at our television screens in complacently and nod our heads when politicians sigh and cry and say, “Well these things happen….?”

Or do we do something less utterly insane and try to find another way?

The Battle Against Evil

The other main argument of those who balk at stronger gun control is the concept that evil people will always do evil things: Criminals don’t care about laws because they’re criminals. And I agree – bad people will always do bad things; it’s an inevitability of life.

That doesn’t mean we need to make it so easy for them.

Not only that but in regards to mass shootings specifically, this argument over-inflates how well-versed in criminality these killers truly are. On average, they are not people with access to illegal firearms. They don’t have connections to the underground economy. They don’t have an illicit gun dealer on speed dial.

Instead, they’re men who are angry, vengeful, callous, hateful. While experts have said there is no useful profile, these murderers share an important commonality: They get their weapons legally.

Cutting off this access won’t stop all shooters; of course, some bad people will still find a way to do bad things. Some will search the dark crevices of commerce and buy assault weapons in back-alley deals or under the cover of night. But others, perhaps, will not. Buying an illegal firearm is dangerous and risky and requires vulnerability in a criminal world that most of those perpetrating these tragedies know nothing about.

Some will find a way to kill regardless of the above. Some will use less-lethal guns or other weapons as a means to harm. Still, this will save lives……maybe even yours. 

Better gun control might not stop all mass shootings (or other instances of gun violence) but it will stop some of them. Why isn’t that enough to matter?

What the Stats Say

It’s human nature to scream and beg and demand action that’s propelled by passion and rage and heartbreak. But while people are driven by emotion, statistics are not.

President Biden recently made headlines when he stated as much, insisting that the 1994 assault weapons ban “brought down” mass shootings. Reporters were quick to fact-check his assertion and cited several pieces of evidence in the process.

One piece of this evidence came from Louis Klarevas, a research professor at Columbia University and the author of Rampage Nation. He compared mass shootings before the assault weapons ban, during the ban, and after the ban, concluding that gun massacres dropped by 37% during the ban while casualties dropped by 43%. In 2004, when the ban ended, those numbers rose dramatically, with mass shootings increasing 183% over the next decade, resulting in a 239% increase in deaths. These shootings have only increased since and gotten deadlier.

The assault weapons ban was imperfect, riddled with loop-holes, and not in existence long enough to understand its true potential. And it clearly didn’t stop all mass shootings, including the horror at Columbine. Yet the statistics allow us to reasonably conclude one important point: It did stop others.

Taking Action

Ultimately, what it comes down to is simple: We take action or we don’t.

We can vote for politicians who romanticize firearms, sitting in front of their weapons like attention-thirsty children showing off their toys. We can replace stop-drop-and-roll drills with run-hide-and-cover exercises. We can flinch every time a waiter drops a tray in a restaurant, wondering if our names will be the ones on the front page of the paper tomorrow. We can wave goodbye to our kids at the bus stop, fearing that today is the day they don’t come home.

Or we can try to find a better solution. And if that doesn’t work, we can try again. And again. And again.

Firearms will always exist in our country — they are as American as apple pie and they are everywhere. And gun violence as a whole is certainly not limited to mass shootings: It’s an extraordinary issue with countless victims and no single solution. But the inability to solve all of the problem does not grant us permission to solve none of it.

We either try to save lives or we accept avoidable tragedy as part of our culture, waving the white flag while the one made up of stars and stripes hangs its head in shame, lowered —over and over and over again— to half-staff.

 

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