The Internet says it is 4840 days and 19.3 miles from Columbine High School, the scene of Colorado's last famous massacre, to the Century Aurora 16 movie theater, the scene of its latest one. If I look today out to the west, I can remember the stricken faces of the parents on April 20, 1999 as they searched local hospitals for their children. And when I looked Friday out to the east I could see the helicopters going back and forth from Aurora's killing field. The faces are different. The names are changed. The candle flames will flicker from other venues in and around Denver. But the grief and the shock and the anger and the senselessness are eternal.
There is no direct cosmic or karmic line between the Columbine shootings, which left 13 dead and 21 wounded, and Friday's mass shooting at a premiere of a Batman movie, which left 12 dead and 58 wounded or injured. This is because the terror attacks of September 11, 2001 forever changed the way our generation copes with mass murder. There is the before. And there is the after. Many people noticed Friday how well the local emergency responders and hospital spokespeople handled their grim duties. That's because they've all been through it before. Over and over again. And so have the rest of us. We are un-drafted veterans of the rituals of sudden death. It's an American thing.
The Atlantic's James Fallows already has said it best: for those of us not directly involved in Friday's mass murder, perhaps the most distressing thing to contemplate today is the realization that we are virtually powerless to prevent it from happening again, soon, somewhere, despite all the hand-wringing and soul-searching that now routinely accompanies these national tragedies. Or, as The New Republic's Timothy Noah put it, America feels terribly sorry for the dead and the wounded caused by gun violence. But not sorry enough to do anything meaningful about it. Don't just think Jared Loughner. Think Jason Coday, too.
This sad fact shrouds mournful days like Friday with a sheen of phoniness. The politicians? They quickly stopped campaigning, said all the right things, and called off the attack ads on television. Evidently it is considered more unseemly to campaign in the hours following a national tragedy than it is for elected officials to fail to limit the scope of such tragedies in the first place. New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg is right; fly the flags at half-staff, bow your heads in a moment of silence, and then have the courage to convene a meeting on Capitol Hill to determine whether people like James Holmes ought to be allowed to buy tear gas grenades, body armor, and assault weapons.
But no one called for such a meeting after the Aurora shooting. No one dare. It is an election year and the National Rifle Association already has flexed its muscle. Sen Mark. Udall (D-Colorado), when asked late Friday if there were some sort of legislation that might be in order, begged off. No wonder. When it comes to state gun control laws, one local gun-rights advocate told The New York Times, "we're at a reasonably well-settled point... the legislature is not that interested in opening it up again." I heard no official dissent from this. "This is a safe city in a safe state in a safe country," said Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper, without any evident trace of irony.
In Colorado, this fantasy persists even after the Columbine massacre (and will persist now, just you watch). Even that day of horror in 1999-- when our children murdered our children and a teacher in our public school-- did not meaningfully reverse the state's traditional affection for gun rights. The New York Times Saturday offered this context and perspective:
As a mountain state, Colorado has a history of broad support for Second Amendment rights. But in the years since the Columbine tragedy, the state's lawmakers and voters passed some gun restrictions, including requirements governing the sale of firearms at gun shows, a law regulating people's ability to carry concealed weapons and legislation banning "straw purchases" of weapons for people who would not qualify to buy them legitimately...
Despite the changes over the past 13 years, Colorado law still prohibits local governments from restricting gun rights in several significant ways. Moreover, gun rights organizations have successfully fought other efforts to restrict access to guns, including blocking a University of Colorado rule prohibiting concealed weapons on campus.
People in Colorado are allowed to carry firearms in a vehicle, loaded or unloaded, as long as the gun is intended for lawful uses like personal protection or protecting property. Carrying a concealed weapon requires a permit, but Colorado is among those states whose rules on permits are relatively lax, said Heather Morton of the National Conference of State Legislatures.
So while the senator and governor were muted Friday, gun rights advocates, in and out of government, proclaimed (before the bodies were even moved) that one proper way to combat gun violence in movie theaters is to permit more people to bring guns into movie theaters. "If this went down in Texas or Arizona," a firearms safety trainer told Slate's Dave Weigel on Friday, "he would have died quick." Maybe not. "From murders to suicides," the Arizona Republic reported last year, "Arizona is consistently among the most deadly states in the nation for gun violence." Texas is better but still above the national average. Check out this chart.
Trying to make meaning of the breadth of modern gun violence, trying to buck up its sad readership, and trying most of all not to say anything too pointed at this delicate hour, here's how The Denver Post put it Saturday in a house editorial:
Some observers are probably going to wonder whether Colorado is especially prone to incubate murderous madmen -- for lack of a better description -- who seek out innocent targets in public venues given the array of incidents in recent years. Since 2006 alone, we've seen a 53-year-old drifter take six female students hostage at Platte Canyon High School, killing one before he killed himself; a troubled 24-year-old shoot two parishioners at New Life Church in Colorado Springs after having killed two other people the night before at a training center for Christian missionaries in Arvada; and a 32-year-old open fire on students at Dear Creek middle school in Jefferson County before seventh-grade math teacher David Benke tackled and subdued him.
Alas, there is nothing special about Colorado. In fact, it's almost by definition average. It ranks 29th on the list of states affected by firearm deaths. Besides, these sorts of mass shootings happen everywhere in America. We are all Columbine. We are all Paducah. We are all Virginia Tech. We are all Tucson. We are all killing each other, and ourselves, at an astonishing rate, with a breathtaking array of firearms. I have a question or two: Are we supposed to feel better or feel worse because the alleged Aurora shooter, James Holmes, lawfully purchased all of his weapons and armor? And where in the Second Amendment does it ban the sale of tear gas grenades?
Since 9/11, U.S. officials have steered America's vast law enforcement apparatus around to the idea that it is more important to prevent crimes from occurring than it is to punish criminals for committing those crimes; that the potential loss of life is too great a price to pay for a reactive approach to terror crime. That's why we are dropping missiles on the heads of terror suspects abroad, why we tortured men like Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, and why we can't close Guantanamo Bay. This shift in focus-- from punishment to prevention, from the reactive to the proactive-- has sorely tested the Constitution. And it explains virtually every official act in the war on terror since the Twin Towers fell.
Yet, evidently, its a concept that has no bearing on the gun debate. Since 9/11, the Brady Campaign tells us, there have been an estimated 334,168 gun deaths* in the United States, a figure that includes homicides, suicides, and unintentional shooting deaths. The total is 100 times larger than the toll of September 11, 2001. Each year, since that day, approximately 30,000 people have been killed by firearms in America. Yet there has been no cry for state or federal policies of prevention over punishment, no loud call for a proactive rather than a reactive approach to gun violence. Imagine how different America would be today if those figures tolled for acts of terrorism instead of acts of gun violence.
Since September 11, 2001, we have had not one but two United States Supreme Court rulings recognizing an individual constitutional right to bear arms. Both of these rulings, crafted by the Court's conservative majority, were nonetheless careful to contemplate the possibility of reasonable gun regulation. But that assumes the political will to enact and implement such regulation-- and also to enforce existing gun regulations in an efficient and aggressive way. How many lives would be spared if law enforcement officials enforced existing gun laws as aggressively as they pursue the war on terror? We'll never know the answer to that question, will we. Such enforcement will never happen.
What did happen early Friday morning was not an act of God. It was not His will that all those people should die or be injured. Nor was it something the Second Amendment requires, commands or ordains. It was, instead, an act of man, a man, who was allowed by law to arm himself more heavily than the police. Local television is inundated this weekend with stories of the victims, and the survivors, and the community's pain. But that's just one part of the tragedy that accompanies this story. The other is the realization that in the day and a half since the Aurora massacre another 100 or so people have been shot to death in America. The land of the free. The home of the brave.
*We initially put this figure at 343,882 based upon information from the Brady Campaign, which later revised the figure.