Legacy: Part Three of Our Look At Guns, Mental Illness and Colorado

[Note: Hello, if you haven't done so already, read parts one and two of this three-part entry. Thanks. -Ed.]

I can recall two concrete actions that resulted from Aaron Snyder’s fatally thwarted attempt at a one-man coup d’état at the State Capitol in Denver.

Firstly, the Governor’s security detail was made larger and more visible. I am almost certain that Governor Ritter did not welcome this, but sometimes even elected officials can’t really say no to their deputies. Most of the time, elected executives like mayors and governors are out in their jurisdictions, meeting with stakeholders, giving speeches, cutting ribbons, all of that good stuff. However, at the time that Aaron Snyder entered the reception area of the Governor’s Office, the Governor was indeed actually in his office, interviewing candidates for judicial appointments. Snyder was not privy to the Governor’s schedule; that the target of Snyder’s psychotic ambition was actually in the building, or even in the Front Range of Colorado, was pure chance.

Governor Ritter’s detail was still a small and low-key operation compared to some of the entourages I’ve seen, such as then-Gov. Tim Kaine of Virginia, who delivered the keynote address of a National Governors Association conference on transportation issues that I attended in scenic Washington, DeeCee in the following June. Three or four large, intimidating men in black suits with earpieces, the whole stereotypical get-up. My cell phone went off in the middle of his speech, blaring the opening guitar solo of AC/DC’s “Thunderstruck” for the enjoyment of nobody as I fumbled like an idiot to silence it. I’ll never forget the glaring looks I got from his security detail. Governor Kaine, like a pro, didn’t need to pause or even break his verbal stride; I on the other hand wanted to disappear.

Secondly, the ancient, heavy, unguarded doors at all four ends of the building were replaced with more stately, modern, and secure entrances, and public access was restricted to two entrances, and later one, with metal detectors. You read that correctly. As recently as 2007 you could just stroll right into the State Capitol, even when the state legislature was in session, and not encounter a security checkpoint or metal detector.  The elected officials took a great deal of pride in the fact that the people’s house was so open to the people. It was an admirable notion, but quaint.

Given how disturbed people seem naturally attracted to government issues and elected officials, I was only surprised that it took until 2007 for a violent incident to shut down that particular symbol of Colorado’s admirably open state government.

As far as public policy is concerned, there was no discernible impact of the near miss at the Capitol, just as there almost certainly be no new law passed in the wake of the theater shootings. There won’t be any action at the federal level, or at the statehouse, and probably not at Aurora City Hall either. Recent statistical evidence suggests that the impact of the National Rifle Association on the outcome of elections is dramatically overstated; Democrats have simply decided that gun control is not a winning issue for them at this point in time.

Public support for restricted access to firearms has never been less popular, even with all of the media coverage of mass shootings since Columbine. In fact, there are now so many guns in America that the optimal individual response might be to pack heat in public and know how to use it. Driven by fear and misperceptions about how dangerous it is to live in America, large majorities support liberalized gun laws even as they recognize that having a firearm in their own home makes them and their families less safe.

Despite what the macho erstwhile Doc Hollidays of Twitter claim, an armed citizen or two or twelve could not have stopped the carnage in the Century 16 Theater in Aurora, and would likely have caused more casualties, not less. The shooter, who shall go nameless in the electronic pages of this distinguished web-zine, enjoyed overwhelming tactical advantages from darkness, the loud background noise of The Dark Knight Rises, his use of smoke bombs, a bulletproof vest and other SWAT-type gear, and enough weapons and ammunition to start a war. So, the bullshit Wild West argument that “more guns stop gun violence” doesn’t hold here. Not co-incidentally, this argument is the intellectual cousin of the “Tax cuts are the answer to every fiscal problem” argument, and is put forth by largely the same group of people: the magical thinkers.

Is there something about Colorado that leads to mass murder? There are reasons to think that, at least anecdotally, the answer might be yes. Although Colorado ranks in the bottom third of states for gun violence and does not have abnormally high measured levels of mental illness, we have very meager publicly funded mental health resources compared to other states. For that reason alone, the actual incidence of the mental health epidemic in Colorado could be significantly higher than public statistics suggest.

Is it something about the people? A large fraction of the migration into Colorado in the last thirty years has come from California (the epicenter of human weirdness) and Texas (the epicenter of gun culture). Combine this with social isolation and a real sense of physical desolation in the high desert of Colorado’s Front Range, and maybe it turns people into tinderboxes.

But this is speculation. The consistently excellent Richard Florida has studied the geography and psychogeography of gun violence in America, and suggests that a culture of honor in the South and West, inherited from the Celtic highland people who were the first large-scale white pioneers, explains much of the regional variation in levels of gun crime in America.

Professor Florida also finds that firearm deaths are significantly lower in states with tighter regulation on the ownership and use of guns.

Firearm deaths are significantly lower in states with stricter gun control legislation. Though the sample sizes are small, we find substantial negative correlations between firearm deaths and states that ban assault weapons (-.45), require trigger locks (-.42), and mandate safe storage requirements for guns (-.48).

All of the weapons and ammunition purchased by the Aurora shooter was procured legally. The fact that you need more documentation and testing to own and drive a car than you need to purchase an AR-15 assault rifle, a military weapon of mass human destruction, ensures that we will see countless more incidents like this in Colorado and elsewhere.

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