When news broke here Monday that there was an active shooter at a King Soopers grocery store in Boulder, Colorado — an affluent college town about 30 minutes northwest of downtown Denver — there was a collective sigh of “Jesus, please, not again.”
Everyone was sickened, but no one was surprised. This is Colorado, after all: a state that has had so many mass shootings in just the last 30 years that we’re starting to lose count.
This time, the shooting claimed the lives of 10 Coloradans: Boulder police Officer Eric Talley, 51, a father of seven; Ricky Olds, 25, Denny Stong, 20, and Teri Leiker, 51, who all worked at the store; Kevin Mahoney, 61, a retired hotel asset and investment manager; Tralona Bartkowiak, 49, who owned a clothing shop in Boulder; Suzanne Fountain, 59, an event manager and actor; Jody Waters, 65, who worked at a clothing store; Lynn Murray, 62, a retired photographer and photo director who was working for Instacart; and Neven Stanisic, 23, who was working two jobs, including for a company that repairs machines at various Starbucks like the one in the King Soopers. A 21-year-old man has been arrested in the shooting.
But America’s wretched culture of mass shootings actually came to Colorado roughly 150 years ago and has never left. Its first victims were those people killed in the vicious, racist Sand Creek Massacre in the early morning of Nov. 29, 1864, when U.S. volunteer soldiers killed an estimated 230 Cheyenne and Arapaho with high-velocity Howitzers. Most of the victims were Indigenous women and children, fast asleep on the floor.
We’re still asking the same question: Why do people have access to war-like guns in our communities?
Coloradans have suffered from that same ugliness ever since — but now some call it our “Wild West” culture. I was born in Denver and, as far back as I can remember, Colorado has had the reputation of being a place where gun-heads massage their pistols and semi-automatic rifles with cloth diapers and wear .45s on their hips, playing out their fantasies of being Doc Holliday or Billy the Kid. Along with the Rocky Mountains, skiing and opulent Aspen lifestyles, the mythos of the Wild West is kind of Colorado’s thing when marketing to tourists.
This culture regularly rears its nasty head at the ballot-box or legislature whenever any modest gun law is introduced.
In 2013, for instance, voters in Colorado voted to recall two Democratic state senators who wanted to expand universal background checks on private gun sales and limit the size of ammunition magazines to 15 rounds. Out of a fear that their members might possibly have to pass background checks and use smaller magazines in their toys that kill, the National Rifle Association contributed roughly $500,000 for “independent expenditures” during that recall, and gun-toting voters in the state put a swift end to the two senators’ tenure in office.
But why were they trying to pass such modestly stricter gun laws that year? It was in response to the mass shooting at an Aurora, Colorado, movie theater on July 20, 2012.
“At some point this country needs to come to terms with the fact that our gun safety laws are not keeping us safe,” said Joe Salazar, a Democrat and former member of the Colorado state House of Representatives.
There, the shooter opened fire on moviegoers during a midnight screening of “The Dark Knight Rises,” killing 12 people and injuring 70 more; although he had a pistol, a shotgun and an AR-15-style Smith & Wesson M&P15 sport rifle with more than 700 rounds of ammunition with him, his rifle jammed and he eventually surrendered to the police outside. (He was convicted in 2015 of one explosives charge, 140 counts of attempted murder and 24 counts of murder and subsequently sentenced to 12 life sentences plus an additional 3,318 years in prison.)
It was, of course, hardly the first time.
On April 20, 1999, I was sitting in my high school ceramics class, 35 miles north of Columbine High School when we got word that there were active shooters prowling the halls there. Immediately, our high school went into lockdown. The killers at Columbine claimed the lives of 15 people that day (including their own) and wounded more than 20 using a Tec-DC9 semi-automatic handgun capable of holding 32 rounds, a 9 mm Hi-Point semi-automatic carbine rifle with a detachable magazine and two sawed-off shotguns.
And 22 years later, we’re still asking the same question: Why do people have access to war-like guns in our communities?
It isn’t “theater” to suggest that lax gun laws need to be changed. It is yet another desperate attempt to save lives from American gun fanaticism.
“At some point this country needs to come to terms with the fact that our gun safety laws are not keeping us safe,” Joe Salazar, a Democrat and former member of the Colorado state House of Representatives, said to me on Tuesday. “We must ban civilian access to weapons of war.”
Salazar said that voters across the country, and especially in Colorado, must vote out the elected officials who are more interested in protecting their donors — the gun lobby — than their constituents.
Don’t get me wrong; Colorado is a beautiful place. From the Rockies to the sunsets, from the northside to the southside of Denver, the state is my home — and the one spot on the globe where I feel like I’m on solid ground. But it’s also riddled with mad Second Amendment cheerleaders who blame mass shootings solely on mental health conditions.
But these fanatical firearms fans can never answer why, if they genuinely believe that the problem is solely mental health conditions, we shouldn’t implement universal background checks that would prevent the sale of an AR-15-style gun to a person with a documented history of both mental health problems and violence.
But instead — and true to form — one day after the Boulder massacre, we had Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, accusing Democrats of playing “ridiculous theater” by talking about background checks and claiming that their efforts to tighten gun laws would strip “law-abiding citizens” of their beloved weaponry.
Of course, there is literally no legislation introduced by Democrats anywhere that would strip all guns from “law-abiding citizens.” Secondly, nearly a dozen people have been murdered yet again. It isn’t “theater” to suggest that lax gun laws need to be changed. It is yet another desperate attempt to save lives from American gun fanaticism.
And, really, how many more lives have to be lost for this to be clear? How many more families need to bury their moms or dads or sons or daughters or grandmas or grandpas before we consider changing our gun laws? Because if these laws stay as lax as they currently are, and if Republicans in Congress and our state legislatures continue to put their love of guns and donors first, the question will remain: when and where will the next massacre be? Because there will be another. We’ve seen that over and over again — especially here in Colorado.