We are sadly practiced at this. We know by heart all the rituals of mass killings. The vigils. The makeshift monuments. The tears. So many tears. We in the media learned as far back as Columbine to tell the stories of the victims’ lives, to put names to the numbers, faces to the names, so that we understand, as far as we can, the cost of these deaths.
We hear calls for action that generally go unanswered. We hear words of compassion and eloquence — I think of Bill Clinton after Columbine, Barack Obama after Charleston — that are long remembered and little acted on.
When I first heard the news about the mass killings in Boulder, I was shocked, then heartbroken, then angry and now, more than anything else, depressed.
There’s nothing new in this, either. I don’t know — and I don’t care to count — how many mass shootings I’ve covered. For a few years after Columbine, Colorado media covered school shootings across the country as school shootings became known as “pulling a Columbine.”
It’s not just schools, of course. Schools, churches, community centers, grocery stores.
When Joe Biden didn’t mention guns or Boulder or Atlanta in the prelude to his first presidential news conference, I knew the game was up.
There would be no news on gun safety reform because Biden knows, and we all should know, there aren’t enough votes in the U.S. Senate to pass gun safety reform.
It’s not just about 60 votes and the filibuster, although no gun bill could pass the Senate with the filibuster still in place. When it comes to banning assault weapons, it’s unlikely that all 50 Democrats are on board, meaning that an end to the filibuster wouldn’t help just yet.
And so when Biden was asked about guns at the news conference, he spoke about “a matter of timing” and then segued into infrastructure, which is his next big legislative item. He’s not wrong about timing, which doesn’t make it any less depressing.
Or, for that matter, any less urgent.
Soon after the shooting, Biden had this to say: “While we’re waiting for more information [about the Boulder gunman], I don’t need to wait another minute, let alone an hour, to take common-sense steps that will save lives in the future, and to urge my colleagues in the House and Senate to act.”
“We can ban assault weapons and high-capacity magazines in this country once again,” he said. “I got that done when I was a senator. It passed. It was the law for the longest time. And it brought down these mass killings. We should do it again.”
There’s no real doubting his commitment. We remember that Biden’s otherwise notorious crime bill from the ’90s included a 10-year ban on assault weapons. The law came up for renewal in 2004, years after Columbine, years after school shootings had become a national contagion, and, of course, was rejected.
We’re left hoping that maybe the state Legislature will do something on assault weapons. It’s possible. Senate Majority Leader Steve Fenberg’s district includes the Boulder King Soopers. He said the other day that, “We support an assault-weapons ban, up to and including and surpassing …” There may not be enough time in this session, when several gun-safety bills are already moving through the Legislature.
But we know the truth about a state ban. As welcome as it would be, it wouldn’t change the fact that for most Coloradans, it’s a short drive to a neighboring state where the assault weapon could be legally purchased. Only seven states and the District of Columbia have assault weapons bans now.
And even though background checks do work and red flag laws do work, they did nothing to stop the madness in Boulder. The Arvada gun store where the shooting suspect had purchased a semi-automatic Ruger AR-556 said it was purchased legally after a Colorado Bureau of Investigation check. And even though he had pleaded guilty to misdemeanor assault in 2017, that was not apparently disqualifying. Police have not said whether the state’s limit on magazine size was an issue. And even though the shooter’s attorney has asked for time for a full mental health assessment, the red flag law was never invoked.
Rep. Joe Neguse sent a letter to Biden calling for the president to issue an executive order banning imported guns and ammunition. More than 60 members of Congress signed on, all Democrats. Diana DeGette, Ed Perlmutter and Jason Crow signed on, all Democrats. Meanwhile — and maybe I shouldn’t even mention this — Lauren Boebert, R-Rifle, tweeted that Black & Decker should watch out because Biden could come after “assault hammers” next, as if there were many mass hammer killings. But it’s not just the crazies among Republicans who hold the line no matter what tragedy strikes next or how many people, according to every poll, favor some kind of gun-purchase restrictions.
It’s pretty clear that Biden will issue executive orders on guns. I’m not a big fan of the executive orders used to bypass legislation. But in this hyperpolarized world, presidents have become increasingly tempted by them, so we’ll see where Biden goes and what is legal. According to the National Shooting Sports Foundation, the United States imported about 3 million firearms in 2019 and produced about double that domestically. I’m not sure what would happen next, except that you could expect yet another run on whatever weapons would be included in the ban. And, of course, you could expect lawsuits from GOP state attorneys general.
I saw John Hickenlooper on one of the cable news shows talking about being governor at the time of the Aurora theater massacre. Seeing Hick was strangely heartening. I remember that soon after the 2012 killings, Hickenlooper went on one cable news show to say of the shooter, “This person, if there were no assault weapons available, if there were no this or no that, this guy’s going to find something, right?”
On another show, Hick said, “If it was not one weapon, it would have been another, and he was diabolical.”
But Hickenlooper learned pretty quickly that he was not in sync with Colorado voters, particularly Democratic voters. And in the next year, he supported, if somewhat reluctantly at times, the package of gun safety laws the Legislature passed and he would sign — laws that, of course, would lead to the recall of two state senators. But by 2020, in his brief presidential run, Hickenlooper was claiming credit for being the lone Western governor to have signed gun safety reform bills and was calling for a national standard on gun licenses.
By the time he ran for Senate against NRA-friendly Cory Gardner, Hickenlooper was calling for a ban on assault weapons. That’s how far Hickenlooper has come. That’s how far the state has come. So maybe, in a matter of time, if the filibuster is overturned, it’s possible — we must still hope, after all — that the U.S. Senate could follow. Or maybe it will take another mass shooting. Or another still. Because, if we know anything, it’s that more death and horror and heartbreak and anger will come.
Mike Littwin’s column was produced for The Colorado Sun, a reader-supported news organization committed to covering the people, places and policies of Colorado. Learn more at coloradosun.com.