The Century 16 Cineplex in Aurora, Colorado, stands desolate behind a temporary green fence, which was raised to protect the theater from prying eyes and mischief-makers. The parking lots that surround the multiplex are empty—weeds are pushing through the asphalt—and the only person at the theater when I visited a few weeks ago was an enervated Aurora police officer assigned to guard the site.
I asked the officer whether the building, which has stood empty since the night of July 20, when a former graduate student named James E. Holmes is alleged to have killed 12 people and wounded 58 others at a midnight showing of The Dark Knight Rises, still drew the curious. “People drive by to look,” he said, but “not too many.” The Aurora massacre is noteworthy, even in the crowded field of mass shootings, as one of the more wretched and demoralizing in the recent history of American violence, and I was surprised that the scene of the crime did not attract more attention. “I guess people move on,” he said.
I walked up a slight rise that provided an imperfect view of the back of Theater 9, where the massacre took place, and tried to imagine the precise emotions the victims felt as the gunfire erupted.
“The shooting started at a quiet moment in the movie,” Stephen Barton told me. He was shot in the opening fusillade. “I saw this canister-type thing, a smoking object, streak across the screen. I thought it was a kid with fireworks playing a prank.”
Barton is 22 years old. He had been preparing to leave for Russia this fall on a Fulbright scholarship. “The first feeling I remember was bewilderment. I don’t remember having a single thought before I was shot, because I was shot early on. I was sitting in the middle of the row, toward the back. I got blasted in my head, neck, and face—my whole upper body—by shotgun pellets.”
As he lay wounded on the floor by his seat, he said, his bafflement gave way to panic. “I had this unwillingness to accept that this was actually happening. I wanted to believe that there was no way that someone in the same room as me was shooting at people,” he said. “So it was disbelief and also this really strong feeling that I’m not ready to die. I’m at someone else’s mercy. I’ve never felt more helpless.”
In the chaos of smoke and gunshots, Barton saw the emergency exit door open, and managed to escape into the parking lot. “If I hadn’t seen that door, I might not have made it,” he said.
I left the theater and drove into Denver, to meet a man named Tom Mauser, who lost a son in the 1999 massacre at Columbine High School, 19 miles from the Aurora theater.
Daniel Mauser, who was 15 years old when he died, tried to hide from the Columbine killers, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold. Harris found the boy under a table in the school library. A classmate told The Denver Post shortly after the massacre, “Eric shot him once, and Daniel pushed chairs at him to try to make him stop, and Eric shot him again.”
After the murder of his son, Tom Mauser became a gun-control activist. In the days after Columbine, advocates of more-stringent controls of firearms thought they could feel a shift in the culture. People were disgusted that Harris and Klebold, neither of whom was of the legal age to buy firearms, had found a way to acquire guns: an 18-year-old woman, a friend of the two shooters, bought three weapons legally at a gun show, where federal background checks were not required.
After Columbine, Colorado closed its “gun-show loophole,” but efforts to close the loophole on the national level failed. The National Rifle Association and other anti-gun-control groups worked diligently to defend the loophole—misnamed, because while loophole suggests a small opening not easily negotiated, about 40 percent of all legal gun sales take place at gun shows, on the Internet, or through more-informal sales between private sellers and buyers, where buyers are not subject to federal background checks. Though anti-loophole legislation passed the U.S. Senate, it was defeated in the House of Representatives. On top of that, the 1994 ban on sales of certain types of semiautomatic weapons, known as the assault-weapons ban, expired in 2004 and was not reauthorized.
After the Aurora shooting, gun-control activists who expected politicians to rise up in outrage were quickly disappointed. Shortly after the massacre, John Hickenlooper, the Democratic governor of Colorado, suggested that stricter gun laws would not have stopped the shooter. “If there were no assault weapons available and no this or no that, this guy is going to find something, right?,” Hickenlooper said. “He’s going to know how to create a bomb.”
Hickenlooper’s statement helped Mauser realize that his side was losing the fight. “I had deep anger when I heard that,” he told me. “I heard the same kinds of statements from some people after Columbine: ‘Well, you know, they had bombs, too.’ The fact is that the deaths were from guns.”
Mauser believes the public has grown numb to mass violence. “People say ‘How tragic’ and then move on,” he said. “They’re told by their governor, their political leaders, that there’s no solution. So they don’t see a solution out there.”
According to a 2011 Gallup poll, 47 percent of American adults keep at least one gun at home or on their property, and many of these gun owners are absolutists opposed to any government regulation of firearms. According to the same poll, only 26 percent of Americans support a ban on handguns.
To that 26 percent, American gun culture can seem utterly inexplicable, its very existence dispiriting. Guns are responsible for roughly 30,000 deaths a year in America; more than half of those deaths are suicides. In 2010, 606 people, 62 of them children younger than 15, died in accidental shootings.
Mauser expresses disbelief that the number of gun deaths fails to shock. He blames the American attachment to guns on ignorance, and on immaturity. “We’re a pretty new nation,” he told me. “We’re still at the stage of rebellious teenager, and we don’t like it when the government tells us what to do. People don’t trust government to do what’s right. They are very attracted to the idea of a nation of individuals, so they don’t think about what’s good for the collective.”
Mauser said that if the United States were as mature as the countries of Europe, where strict gun control is the norm, the federal government would have a much easier time curtailing the average citizen’s access to weapons. “The people themselves would understand that having guns around puts them in more danger.”
There are ways, of course, to make it at least marginally more difficult for the criminally minded, for the dangerously mentally ill, and for the suicidal to buy guns and ammunition. The gun-show loophole could be closed. Longer waiting periods might stop some suicides. Mental-health professionals could be encouraged—or mandated—to report patients they suspect shouldn’t own guns to the FBI-supervised National Instant Criminal Background Check System, although this would generate fierce opposition from doctors and patients. Background checks, which are conducted by licensed gun shops, have stopped almost 1 million people from buying guns at these stores since 1998. (No one knows, of course, how many of these people gave up their search for a gun, and how many simply went to a gun show or found another way to acquire a weapon.)
Other measures could be taken as well. Drum-style magazines like the kind James Holmes had that night in Aurora, which can hold up to 100 rounds of ammunition and which make continuous firing easy, have no reasonable civilian purpose, and their sale could be restricted without violating the Second Amendment rights of individual gun owners.
But these gun-control efforts, while noble, would only have a modest impact on the rate of gun violence in America.
Because it’s too late.
There are an estimated 280 million to 300 million guns in private hands in America—many legally owned, many not. Each year, more than 4 million new guns enter the market. This level of gun saturation has occurred not because the anti-gun lobby has been consistently outflanked by its adversaries in the National Rifle Association, though it has been. The NRA is quite obviously a powerful organization, but like many effective pressure groups, it is powerful in good part because so many Americans are predisposed to agree with its basic message.
America’s level of gun ownership means that even if the Supreme Court—which ruled in 2008 that the Second Amendment gives citizens the individual right to own firearms, as gun advocates have long insisted—suddenly reversed itself and ruled that the individual ownership of handguns was illegal, there would be no practical way for a democratic country to locate and seize those guns.
Many gun-control advocates, and particularly advocates of a total gun ban, would like to see the United States become more like Canada, where there are far fewer guns per capita and where most guns must be registered with the federal government. The Canadian approach to firearms ownership has many attractions—the country’s firearm homicide rate is one-sixth that of the U.S. But barring a decision by the American people and their legislators to remove the right to bear arms from the Constitution, arguing for applying the Canadian approach in the U.S. is useless.
Even the leading advocacy group for stricter gun laws, the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, has given up the struggle to convince the courts, and the public, that the Constitution grants only members of a militia the right to bear arms. “I’m happy to consider the debate on the Second Amendment closed,” Dan Gross, the Brady Campaign’s president, told me recently. “Reopening that debate is not what we should be doing. We have to respect the fact that a lot of decent, law-abiding people believe in gun ownership.”
Which raises a question: When even anti-gun activists believe that the debate over private gun ownership is closed; when it is too late to reduce the number of guns in private hands—and since only the naive think that legislation will prevent more than a modest number of the criminally minded, and the mentally deranged, from acquiring a gun in a country absolutely inundated with weapons—could it be that an effective way to combat guns is with more guns?
Today, more than 8 million vetted and (depending on the state) trained law-abiding citizens possess state-issued “concealed carry” handgun permits, which allow them to carry a concealed handgun or other weapon in public. Anti-gun activists believe the expansion of concealed-carry permits represents a serious threat to public order. But what if, in fact, the reverse is true? Mightn’t allowing more law-abiding private citizens to carry concealed weapons—when combined with other forms of stringent gun regulation—actually reduce gun violence?