Twenty years and a day

Columbine 1600x900
Colorado’s state flower, the Rocky Mountain columbine

There was a time when people used to say things like “I never thought something like this could happen here.”

Big news was something that happened somewhere else. We’d read about it in newspapers and magazines. We’d hear about it on the radio. We’d see it on the evening news, or sometimes, via the dreaded “We interrupt this program…”

When the Columbine High School shootings occurred on April 20, 1999, I was living in South Denver and working in suburban Englewood, about 12 miles from Columbine. I learned about what was happening that Tuesday afternoon by word of mouth from coworkers. I soon learned that some of my colleagues were parents of Columbine students.

Still, somehow, it seemed far away.

The next morning I had my first cup of coffee in front of the television. I watched one of the network morning programs that was broadcasting live from Columbine. Parents and students were being interviewed in the falling snow. I looked out the window over my shoulder and saw snow falling.

Suddenly it was all too close, too real, too awful.

And in the twenty years and a day since Columbine, too common.

This past Monday, as the twenty year anniversary of Columbine approached, a troubled young woman “infatuated with Columbine” flew from Florida to Colorado and bought a shotgun, setting off an intense search, school lockouts and school closures. Wednesday morning the body of 18-year old Sol Pais would be found near a foot trail at the base of Mount Evans. The young woman had apparently killed herself before the world ever took note of her despair, and without her knowing that she was the subject of great concern.

We must be careful not to give in to the same sort of hopelessness.

School shootings and other mass shootings which were once rare and seemingly far away have become dreadfully commonplace and disturbingly close. While I still lived in Colorado there would be other mass shootings, most notoriously the Aurora theater shootings of July 20, 2012. I woke up to that news from my clock radio, thinking, in my semi-asleep state, that I’d misheard. A dozen people killed and scores wounded in an overnight shooting in Aurora? Nah, that can’t be right.

There would be other school shootings, such as the one that occurred at Arapahoe High School in December 2013. One random victim died from her injuries, along with the shooter, who killed himself.

And there would be church shootings, such as one that occurred literally next door to an office in Aurora where I was doing some volunteer political party work on a Sunday in April 2012. That particular shooting got relatively little coverage, in spite of it being ended by a good guy with a gun — an off-duty Denver police officer. You’d think that the good-guy-with-a-gun folks might have promoted the story, but maybe they prefer stories about an average Joe good guy with a gun.

Being in the vicinity of so much gun violence isn’t a function of having lived in metropolitan Denver, Colorado, it’s a function of living in modern day America. It can happen here, anywhere, anytime.

I won’t go into a long harangue about the statistics of gun violence in the United States. Suffice it to say that since Columbine, the numbers have gone up. Way up. One of the things that’s commonly overlooked, however, is that most gun deaths in the USA — more than half, almost 24,000 people in 2017 — are suicides.

People are killing other people, but more often they are killing themselves. Guns and ammunition are readily available, legally or otherwise, virtually on demand to virtually anybody.

Guns and ammo aren’t the only problem, of course, and it’s damn hard to make headway in this realm. That doesn’t mean we should stop trying.


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