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Tell me if this sounds familiar to you. Aurora is the third largest city in Colorado, part of the same metropolis as Denver, of which it is half the population. It’s technically a suburb, but has grown to the point where it rivals its larger neighbor. It’s renowned for its golfing and sports. Residents of Orange County would likely feel at home there. And, like here, last night was projected to be a big night at the movies, with the midnight premieres of what was expected to be one of (perhaps the) top grossing movie of the year, The Dark Knight Rises.
By now, most of you have probably heard of the attack. A lone gunman, age 24, following the great American tradition of entering the theater through the emergency exits. But this was different: he had
tear gas smoke bombs, a gas mask, and three firearms. He mowed down people — at least 14 dead, more than 50 wounded — in a manner that we’ve become familiar with from spree killings like Columbine and Virginia Tech. In a tragic way, we’re almost used to stories of school shootings by now; this was something different.
Maybe there have been spree killings at movie premieres before that I just don’t remember, just as that I know that Columbine was not the first high school shooting and Virginia Tech not the first college shooting. But this has the feel of opening up a new genre, transforming a relatively harmless social custom — kids and adults staying up past midnight to be among the first to enjoy non-preview showings of the next big movie, along with the bragging rights that come with it later in the day at school or in the office.
My children enjoy midnight premieres and it will be a long time before the next one is not tinged by the memory of what happened in Colorado last night. The goal of the shooter, whose name I know but will not mention, was presumably to have an impact on our psyche. Well, it will have worked. That in turn will stimulate others to come up with a topper, to take some cherished and relatively innocent social custom of ours and turn it into a bloodbath, to impose memories of one’s destructive power on future moviegoers for weeks, months, years; to hijack the fame of the Batman series and inject one’s own poison eggs into it, set to hatch in countless future minds at countless future times. That, for some, is power worth having.
I received a letter yesterday from the California Rifle and Pistol Association, with a return address in Fullerton, with a campaign questionnaire and an exhortation to join their cause. I think that the Supreme Court decision from four years ago has settled the question of whether gun ownership for purposes of self-defense is a fundamental right. Justice Scalia’s opinion in District of Columbia v. Heller was crafted to have enough holes and escape hatches in it as to still allow for considerable roll-back of the right in a similar manner to how “time, place, and manner” restrictions roll back First Amendment rights and all sorts of Supreme Court decisions have rolled back our Fourth Amendment rights against search and seizure.
So today, of course, I’m thinking about gun control. I’m reminded of how the situation in the Aurora Century 16′s Theater 9 was supposed to work, in the theory of gun control opponents. People in the audience at the premiere should have been carrying concealed weapons. When the shooter released his tear gas and started firing, one or more of the audience members was supposed to pull out their weapon and shoot the bastard before he could do much further harm. In fact, the prospect that someone would do so is supposed to have deterred the shooter from ever showing up bent on destruction in the first place, and Aurora’s midnight premiere would have passed as just a happy memory of the crazy things we do.
That’s the theory.
Rewind and play out the events of last night a thousand times each of many variations — with strict gun control overall, with strict gun control not overall but in places like theaters, with concealed carry allowed, with concealed carry encouraged, with concealed carry mandatory — and I’m sure that in some of the more pro-gun scenarios (mandatory carry being the most extreme) the shooter gets killed early on and lives are saved. Yet I find this unsatisfying. It’s an incomplete story.
Play out the scenario and sometimes an innocent person (maybe engaged in street theater?) gets shot. Sometimes the people who get shot in the melee of screaming and trampling outnumber the lives that would be saved. (And, of course, in any given case we rarely know how many people would have been killed in the absence of armed resistance.) Sometimes, the solution of everyone having guns deters this problem but creates new ones, as when a conflict about something minor like cutting in line or a fender-bender escalates to become deadly. You, dear reader, could no doubt resist the temptation to use your firearm in anything but a righteous and upstanding way, but will others be so prudent? Will they, knowing that you are allowed, encouraged, or even mandated to carry a gun, be more likely to shoot to disable you before you get the drop on them? A lot could go right and a lot could go wrong.
What bothers me is that, as is often the case in politics, the facile and simplistic position is especially attractive. For some people, upon hearing of this massacre, that’s going to be a call for gun control. For others it will be a call for more and more concealed carry permits (or for overall permission.) Right now, opponents of gun control are winning — they try harder and are more willing to be single-issue voters. OK, that’s our political culture, hard as it is to explain to those from other lands. But is it too much to ask for people who favor gun rights — or their expansion, as with concealed carry laws — to take the problems seriously and work with those who suffer as a result of these massacres?
I understand the fear of firearms advocates that even thinking about scenarios such as the ones I present above invites greater government regulation and sacrifice of freedom. The notion that concealed carry is a cure-all, a guaranteed tonic for what ails our society, is appealing in its simplicity. But unless we truly believe that — and I expect that many in Orange County do not, or at least would not if this tragedy had occurred at one of our megaplexes – then we do need to discuss how we ward off this sort of thing. I see a lot of waving the problem away as inconvenient to solve and dangerous the consider — and this morning that just does not seem good enough. I would like Second Amendment advocates to rise to the occasion, with appropriate concern and better suggestions than just “arm everyone everywhere.”
Our sympathies, as usual, go out to those touched by this tragedy.