Century 16, Aurora
Handgun advocates, presumably, imagine the following Hollywood situation: tear gas canisters exploding, terrified people rushing to escape, dragging victims behind them. In the almost-total darkness of a smoky theater, a lone hero rises, pulls a hand cannon from his concealed holster, and with a single perfect shot takes down the assailant. I assume this is what Congressman Gohmert had in mind when he took to the airwaves this morning, publically lamenting that no one else in the theater had been armed. That Denver’s most recent shooting victim, before last night, had been an armed policewoman means nothing. That such heroic vigilante scenarios never happen, even though plenty of Americans walk around armed every day, means nothing. That such scenarios were laughable back when James Fenimore Cooper confabulated their pre-industrial equivalents two centuries ago means nothing.
How many times will we have to see something like this take place, to feel the horror gradually trickle down into our nerves? Early this morning, I woke to see my girlfriend’s face hovering over the bed. She was shaking me. “There was a shooting in Aurora last night” – you can walk to Aurora from our place – “and twelve people were killed. My boss just called to see if I was okay.” And so I got out of bed, opened my email, and started telling people I was fine. My phone rang: “Yes, I’m fine, thanks for asking.” I couldn’t help thinking, as I switched between reading the New York Times coverage and typing those fast emails and sort of staring stupefied out of the window, that there are at least forty or more people otherwise no different from me (count their families, friends, and it’s hundreds more) who aren’t able to blithely say, “Of course I’m fine.” Who can’t comfort themselves that they wouldn’t have been there anyway, that they didn’t care about the movie, that in any case it’s not their usual theater.
It would have been a joyous night for them. The weather was perfect – not as cool as some of the summer nights we’ve had lately, but not as hot either. The sky was clear, and there was even a breeze. Hundreds of excited fans were counting down the minutes, feeling the butterflies in their stomachs, maybe putting on Batman t-shirts or costumes, or maybe just tucking into a late dinner with the friends who’d join them at the theater. Of course they should all have strapped on their defensive handguns, yes? So that they could all rise and fire at the first sign of danger?
I think about the mood at the jazz festival last month, just down the street at City Park. I remember how good it felt to see people from all walks having fun in the same space: kids running around; hipsters barbecuing; couples on dates: black, white, Asian, Mexican … the whole city was there. I was proud of my city. At about the time we were packing up our picnic, a scuffle broke out by the bandstand. When officer Celena Hollis stepped in to break up the fight – a young, accomplished, universally-respected figure on her beat – she was shot and killed. She was armed, of course; she was a uniformed policewoman. Do we want to live in a world where not only police but average citizens have the right to walk into every scuffle with guns in their hands, safety off? There are those, apparently, who do.
You can walk outside my apartment this morning and nothing on the street looks different than it might on any other summer weekday: joggers, trees, the regular bus. Grief is invisible, even as it rushes into hundreds of lives this morning, changing every contour, trashing cherished things, increasing in size when you try to shut your eyes. Invisible to the rest of us, there are voicemail and email accounts filling up with increasingly frantic messages, “You alright man? Please, please write back okay?” I dress for work, the candidates make bland statements, neither of them mentions gun control. “There are going to be other days for politics,” our president assures us, “this is a day for prayer and reflection.” I hope that helps him with the gun vote, I really do. But why do I suspect it won’t?
That’s another thing Elisa said, as she shook me awake. “Neither of the candidates has said a thing about gun control.” Of course they haven’t. Why would they? Nothing has been said or done about gun control in the aftermath of the Tuscaloosa assault rifle shooting from last week or any of the other tens of thousands of gun-related deaths this year, so the silence now is not surprising. Both need the votes of the kind of people who honestly believe you should be able to walk to the nearest mall and buy an assault rifle. Such weapons were banned up until 2004, when the very good law that forbid their purchase was permitted to expire. I click over to Facebook and find that a girl I knew in highschool has quoted Charleton Heston, “There are no good guns. There are no bad guns.” The canard here – and the one high-capacity weapons advocates will harp on like automatons – is that all would be well if only the good guys carried guns. It’s not that lunatics have guns, that’s not the problem, it’s that if good people had guns as well, they could protect themselves, protect the children, keep the O. K. Corral varmint free.
Celena Hollis had a gun, and so did the officers that surrounded her. Of course she didn’t fire, she was only breaking up a fight. Of course she wouldn’t have fired, there were people everywhere, and bullets – pace the fantasies of their fiercest advocates – don’t always go where you most desire they go.
And what of the moviegoers last night? Had they been armed, how many more would be dead or wounded today? The assailant set off tear gas and began to fire at random. Are you telling me, Congressman Ghomert, that you’d have supported a tear-gas victim shooting into a crowd of panicking people, in a dark theater? Such opinions are beneath contempt, but we can anticipate them. As I began to write this note, I left the space blank above where I first mention Congressman Ghomert’s name. He hadn’t made his comment yet, but I knew that within minutes he or someone like him would have spoken up for what he believes. Would that his opponents had such courage.
John Cotter is Executive Editor at Open Letters Monthly