Under a Blood Red Sky

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.

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Andrew Cohen is a contributing editor at The Atlantic. He is a legal analyst for 60 Minutes and CBS Radio News, a fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice, and Commentary Editor at The Marshall Project

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