Colorado and the nation have failed promises to hundreds of victims of past gun massacres, to make effective changes in an effort to prevent future mass-gun-violence victims.
Recent shootings in Perry, Iowa, and information about the October bowling alley mass shooting in Lewiston, Maine, make the failure of Congress obvious and excruciating.
Axios recently reported there were 656 mass shootings last year in the United States. There were 647 mass shootings in 2022, and 689 in 2021, according to the Gun Violence Archive.
A shocking 42,987 Americans died from all gun violence in 2023.
Alarmingly, gun violence is the leading cause of death of America’s youth. That alarm, however, has not been enough to shake the state and the nation into meaningful action for decades.
Thirty years ago, Aurora was staggered when a young Nathan Dunlap shot five of his Chuck E. Cheese’s co-workers, killing four of them. He was angry he’d been fired weeks before the 1993 shooting. Only 19, it was easy for him to get a gun. It was easy to use it. After his trial, he revealed he’d been suffering from mental illness most of his life. His father had asked counselors at Overland High School for help. He was diagnosed with hypomania but never received treatment.
While this wasn’t the beginning of Colorado’s long and lurid history with mass shootings and gun violence, it was one of the first massacres that revealed problems here and across the country that have never been properly addressed.
Similarities have repeated themselves since during massacres at Columbine High School, the Aurora theater shooting, the STEM school shooting, the Arapahoe High School shooting, The Colorado Springs Planned Parenthood shooting, the Thornton Walmart shooting, the Boulder massacre and just over a year ago, the Club Q shooting in Colorado Springs.
These don’t even include “lesser” recent local shootings, such as the Hinkley High School parking lot shooting two years ago and the nearby Aurora Central park shooting just days before.
These mass shootings are just part of the more than 1,000 annual Colorado gunfire related deaths logged each year.
Decades after “active shooter” became part of the national vernacular, every TV news alert, every urgent text from a school is met with dread, especially by parents across the country.
Soon after a teacher and 12 students were killed during the Columbine High School massacre, Congress and the state rallied. We saw the catastrophic loss of life as an alarm about the lack of gun control, a near absence of mental health awareness and treatment, our vulnerable children, and our society.
It became obvious even to stalwart conservatives like then-Congressman Tom Tancredo, whose district included Littleton, that virtually unrestricted guns, media violence, mental illness, overtaxed schools and a desensitized society were all contributing to this growing public nightmare.
What was supposed to be the war on gun massacres to end all gun massacres, fizzled.
While Columbine became synonymous with school shootings, it was a mass shooting in 1989 at a school in Stockton, California and one in 1991 at a Luby’s cafeteria in Kileen, Texas, that prompted even Republicans like former President Ronald Reagan to back a 1994 assault weapons ban in hopes of reversing a ghastly rise in gun massacres.
The ban was hopelessly weakened before being signed by President Bill Clinton in 1994. It applied only to future manufacture of so-called assault weapons and virtually did nothing to reduce their numbers or easy availability.
Even that feeble attempt evaporated when Congress refused to re-enact it.
It was then the National Rifle Association, which had recently moved toward becoming a political organization, became a strident lobbying group. Once an organization espousing marksmanship and gun safety, the NRA evolved into a union led by zealots, obsessed with a warped interpretation of the Second Amendment.
Not only was the NRA and others able to thwart effective gun control, despite public sentiment in its favor, they were able to help marshal candidates who further weakened national and state gun laws.
It’s undeniable that rampant American gun slaughter is the result of prolific and easily attained guns, relatively absent treatment for mental illness and a lurid fascination with ubiquitous, graphic gun violence in every form of popular media.
After the Columbine massacre, the nation had a chance to tackle all of these problems. Congress and state legislators, instead, chose to do almost nothing.
The killings continued. Then came the 2012 Aurora theater shooting. Tepid Colorado gun control enacted in 2013 was met with consummate NRA and a massive effort to elect pro-gun activists. Defying the NRA and other local extremist, anti-gun-control groups made political candidates fearful.
Those who tout Colorado’s meek gun control laws fail to point out their failings. The high-capacity magazine law “grandfathered in” thousands of existing magazines and provided no way to prove new ones brought into Colorado are illegal. The higher-round magazines themselves are still sold as “parts” in gun stores, easily assembled. Mandatory background checks do nothing to prevent people from driving to Wyoming to get around them or buy guns on the black market.
Police say so-called “ghost guns” assembled from parts without serial numbers are also becoming prolific, especially among teenagers.
Colorado lawmakers only a few years ago have been able to pass a much-needed red-flag gun bill. The measure allows police — and now others — to remove guns from mentally ill people until they can prove they’re well enough to reclaim them.
Clearly, the law didn’t work for those killed just a year ago at Club Q in Colorado Springs.
While we cannot lose hope that gun-control advocates will succeed in persuading Colorado legislators and Congress to enact meaningful, effective measures, it would be foolish to believe elected officials alone will bring those changes to reality.
In the same way the public has brought real change to the issue of police reform through public outcry and backing candidates promising change, it will take nothing short of the same effort to thwart the gun lobby and its faithful elected and civilian followers.
The need to unravel generations of gun-industry propaganda and disinformation is just as critical as the need for assault weapon bans and removals. The need to persuade the public to recognize and act on intervening in the lives of mentally ill people who have or acquire guns is as vital as ensuring mental illness treatment receives parity with other medical maladies.
It will take Herculean effort to ban all assault-style weapons and remove them. It will be a monumental undertaking to require gun owners to show proficiency, safety and sound mental health, regularly. It will take a vast statewide crusade to rid Colorado of elected leaders who believe the lives of innocent people are the price we should all regularly pay for unfettered gun rights.