On April 20th, 1999 two students entered Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado and opened fire. One of the students, 18-year-old Eric Harris, had a 12-gauge pump-action shotgun and a 9mm carbine with thirteen 10-round magazines. The other student, 17-year-old Dylan Klebold, had a 9mm handgun with one 52-, one 32-, and one 28-round magazine, as well as a double-barrelled sawed-off shotgun. Given the amount of firepower they were carrying, it’s remarkable they only murdered 13 people while wounding 24 others. Together, they discharged their weapons 176 times.
As tragic as these shootings were, they were just the beginning. Less than eight years later, on September 27th, 2006, 40 miles down the road in Bailey, Colorado a crazed gunman entered Platte Canyon High School and took six female students hostage. After sexually molesting them, he released four and detained two. When the police broke in, he shot one of the girls before taking his own life. He was carrying a .40-caliber Glock 22 semi-automatic pistol with a 15-round magazine.
At this point 14 people under the age of 30 had lost their lives to automatic weapons in the hands of crazed gunmen in the state of Colorado. There would be 15 more.
Two for the Price of One
On December 9th, 2007, a 24-year-old ex-Christian harboring a visceral hatred for his former religion opened fire at the Youth with a Mission Training Center in Arvada, Colorado using a Beretta .40 caliber semi-automatic pistol. He killed two youth workers, wounding two others. Then he jumped in his car and drove to Colorado Springs.
Less than 12 hours later, the same shooter, Matthew J. Murray, who prior to his rampage had been observed exhibiting strange behavior and claimed to be hearing voices, showed up at the New Life Church, a sprawling megachurch in Colorado Springs. Now he was carrying an expanded arsenal which included an XM15 .223-caliber semi-automatic rifle and a Springfield Armory 9mm semi-automatic pistol. He killed two more people and wounded two others before taking his own life.
After all this, voices began to be raised in favor of stricter gun control measures in the state. Not surprisingly, however, the NRA marshaled its forces to quell any talk of expanded background checks or stricter restrictions on automatic weapons. Five years passed. Then on July 20th 2012, it happened again.
The Dark Knight Rises
Aurora, Colorado is only 16 miles from Columbine. It is home to the Aurora Century 16 multiplex, a multi-screen movie theater of the sort found in many suburban shopping malls. Here an audience of mostly young people were watching a midnight showing of the Batman film, The Dark Knight Rises.
Many in the audience were wearing costumes so no one thought it unusual when a man dressed in black wearing a gas mask and a ballistic helmet walked into the theater. It would not have been out of the question for the theater to arrange publicity stunts in conjunction with the film’s opening, so panic didn’t ensue when they saw a strange man carrying firearms.
Their first inkling that something was amiss came when the man tossed two smoke canisters into the audience, causing their eyes to burn and itch. Then he opened fire. Using a Smith & Wesson M & P 15 semi-automatic rifle with a 100-round magazine, the shooter raked the audience with bullets. So powerful was the weapon that a bullet passed through the wall and hit three people in the adjacent theater. When the weapon jammed, the shooter pulled a Glock 22 pistol and continued firing.
When it was over ten lay dead. Two would die later in the hospital. Of the victims, ten were under the age of 30, one was a six-year-old girl. 58 people were wounded. The shooter, 25-year-old James Holmes, was said to be mentally ill.
All of this happened within the confines of the greater Denver metropolitan area in a state with a western heritage that glorifies the use of guns. Nevertheless, even here the carnage caused by the combination of automatic weapons in the hands of unhinged individuals led to an outcry in favor of stricter gun laws.
In the course of eleven years, 33 people had been killed and 84 wounded in greater Denver by crazed gunmen with automatic weapons. Still, the outcry fell on mostly deaf ears. The National Rifle Association brought its considerable clout to bear to forestall legislation. Then 1,800 miles away in Newtown, Connecticut 20 first graders were mowed down by a crazed gunman and at last the state of Colorado found the political will to act.
The Slippery Slope Theory
It’s a measure of the effectiveness of the NRA’s tactics that the first reaction to the massacre of innocents like those murdered in Colorado is not the hand-wringing of gun control advocates but the stampede of gun owners to gun shops to buy even more weapons as a hedge against potential anti-gun legislation.
The NRA has most of its members convinced that any gun law, no matter how weak or well intentioned, is the first step on a slippery slope that will lead to an outright ban on all firearms. Applying this same logic in a libertarian context, all laws should be revoked because laws by their very nature are impositions on individual liberties and could, if abused, lead to compete prohibitions of regulated activities.
But it’s pointless to rail against the absurdity of NRA doctrine. The fact remains the NRA is the most powerful lobby in the country, and its 5 million members collectively have a greater political will than the rest of the country combined, which explains why reasonable federal gun legislation can’t get passed, even when the majority of Americans are in favor of it.
It’s also worth mentioning that the NRA is not entirely wrong.
Torches and Pitchforks
One of the most common solutions offered to end the scourge of gun violence in the U.S. is to regulate it like driving. People say, “You have to get a license to drive a car. Why not regulate guns the same way?”
The answer, as any NRA member will tell you, is that driving is a privilege and gun ownership is a right. Strictly speaking, you can’t regulate a right. And to the extent that any government tries to regulate a right, it is no longer a right.
However, even rights have their limits, as the Supreme Court pointed out in Schenck v. United States when it limited the right of free speech by famously saying you can’t shout “fire!” in a crowded movie theater. Or, more recently, when the court limited the Fourth Amendment right against unreasonable search and seizure when it permitted airport security screeners to frisk and X-ray people without reasonable cause because someone, somewhere, sometime might be a threat.
Yet the NRA has no concern with these other niceties of law, they have only one focus, to make the Second Amendment right to bear arms the one constitutional right that cannot be infringed – ever.
To be fair, that’s their mission. If the Fourth Amendment had such dedicated advocates we wouldn’t be talking about whether Edward Snowden is a traitor. We would be getting out the torches and pitchforks over the NSA’s assumption of the right to spy on American citizens.
Say what you will about the NRA, it sticks to its knitting.
The Drunken Man and the Car
Another thing the NRA is correct about is that the problem is more complicated than just guns. That’s because the other factor in the shootings that have plagued Colorado and the rest of the country over the past eleven years is deranged individuals. It’s not just guns, it’s guns in the hands of unhinged people, so the NRA’s glib solution is to leave guns alone and focus on better mental health care, which is a peculiar position for a right-wing organization to take considering that their hero, Ronald Reagan, as governor of California, closed all of California’s state mental hospitals and put the patients on the streets without care or safety nets. But this is a shell game. If we were serious about gun violence we would approach it like we do drunken driving.
The problem with drunk driving is not the car. A car without a drunk driver is not nearly as lethal an object. And the problem is not the drunk. A drunk walking down the street is not nearly the threat he is behind the wheel. The problem is a drunk driver, and the solution is simple. Separate the drunk from the car.
In the same way, the solution to gun violence should be to separate the violent, unhinged person from the gun. Law abiding gun owners should no more be imposed upon by gun legislation than good drivers should be imposed upon by drunk driving laws.
Simple enough, right? But the NRA opposes expanded background checks. They don’t want gun registration to be the means by which deranged individuals are kept away from guns lest someone who is not deranged is inadvertently inconvenienced. Although they have not explicitly offered a solution, other than to shift the focus away from guns, their idea seems to be to lock up all the potentially deranged people, but then, as Ronald Reagan did, refuse to fund the institutions. This is an unworkable solution that borders on absurd.
The NRA, Then and Now
Today’s combative NRA bears little resemblance to its earlier, conciliatory incarnation. It may be hard to believe today, but there was a time when the NRA actually advocated for common sense gun control, reasoning that irresponsible gun ownership hurt their cause while demonstrating that good gun owners were responsible people who had the best interests of the community at heart.
Not any more. Today it’s an all or nothing proposition. Even the NRA’s frequent cry that no new gun laws be passed until current gun laws are enforced rings false. The strict enforcement of existing gun laws would make it more difficult to own guns, and the softening of enforcement, which the NRA decries, has largely to do with the efforts of the NRA. Let’s be clear, in the NRA’s ideal world there would be no gun laws at all.
As a result, it becomes extremely difficult to navigate the obstacles imposed by the NRA to achieve a solution to the massacring of innocent people by maniacs using guns.
Rethinking our Priorities
One way that may be workable is to make the penalty for using a gun in the commission of a felony extremely harsh. The NRA is not wrong when it points out that the enforcement of existing gun laws is lax. The average time spent in prison by someone involved in a first time gun offense is about three years.
Interestingly, the federal mandatory minimum prison sentence for possession of 100 marijuana plants is 5 years without parole. Which suggests a country with its priorities out of whack. If we care more about the slaughter of innocent children than we do about enterprising stoners, we ought to release a few potheads and lock up a great many more felons who commit crimes with guns.
If we changed the law to make it an automatic 30-year prison sentence without parole for anyone caught using a gun in a felony, your average hard-ass gang banger who popped a cap in someone’s ass at age 15 wouldn’t see the light of day until he was 45. That would sweep up a whole lot of would-be shooters, and the amount of gun violence would drop.
Whether or not it would end the sort of mass shootings Colorado experienced, however, is doubtful. The only way to do that is to separate deranged people from high-powered automatic weapons, and on March 12, 2013 the Colorado legislature took steps to do just that, passing a law, in the face of staunch NRA opposition, limiting ammunition magazines to 15-rounds and imposing stricter background checks.
Will this halt mass shootings in the state? Probably not. But no law is ever expected to completely eliminate the offense it’s directed against. Instead, laws are designed to discourage and hamper criminal activity, and if any state has had good reasons to look for ways to curb gun violence it’s Colorado.
Eleven years and four horrific shootings all within a 70-mile radius of downtown Denver. 33 dead and 84 wounded, most of them young people under the age of 30.
Sure, people like their guns. And people should have the right to own them and use them responsibly. But when maniacs are permitted to run amok, something must be done. Any reasonable person would come to that conclusion. The Colorado legislature did, without any help from the NRA.
Gun, pistol and death, Bonzami Emmanuel; Columbine High School, Malcolm Logan; Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, Zenohockey; Bane of the Dark Knight Rises, Eva Rinaldi; Century 16 Theater in Aurora, Malcolm Logan; James Holmes, Medeis; Platte Canyon High School, Malcolm Logan; Youth with a Mission Training Center, Malcolm Logan; Youth with a Mission plaque, Malcolm Logan; New Life Church, Malcolm Logan; Obama visiting Aurora victims, Public domain; Target pistol, Public domain; Wayne LaPierre, Gage Skidmore; Funeral, Stuart Miles; 50-round assault weapon magazine, ROG5728; Blood splatter, Nyki M