On the heels of incomprehensible evil and loss in Boulder at the hands of a well-armed killer on May 22, politicians were predictably quick to breathlessly bootstrap the need to pass pending gun control legislation in Congress and in our Colorado General Assembly to preventing such atrocities.
Despite the apparent legal purchase of the murder weapon used in Boulder, less than one day after the horror, Democratic Congressman Jason Crow tweeted, “The House passed #HR8 and #HR1446 (background check bills) to help prevent tragedies like we saw last night.” That correlation is misplaced and misdirects our focus from efforts that would likely have greater impact. Colorado legislators urged passage of legislation requiring firearms be safely stored and their theft reported. None of those laws would have prevented Boulder or most of the other mass murders we have experienced.
We can only speculate about the impact our gun control laws have had on crime. My professional experience has been that most politically opportunistic, post-mass shooting legislation does not address what actually happened, and even those few laws that do, have not and cannot protect us from mass shootings. These are just the ones I have touched as a Colorado prosecutor:
On April 20, 1999, a 17- and 18-year-old attempted to detonate home-made explosives to set their suburban high school on fire and shoot survivors as they fled. The plan failed, but the teens, armed with four firearms,all legally purchased from gun shows – entered their school, murdered 13 people and wounded another 24 before turning their guns on themselves.
One short-barreled rifle held a 10-round magazine that complied with the then-existing federal assault weapon ban. The killers sawed off two shotguns to illegal lengths to make them concealable. One used a TECDC9 handgun (capable of firing more than 30 rounds without reloading), illegally sold to them by two young adults. As a young prosecutor, I, along with Steve Jensen, convicted those men and sent them to prison.
Colorado responded quickly with legislation closing the so-called “gun show loophole.” At the time, I believed that Columbine would be the biggest, most awful criminal case I would ever handle. I was wrong.
Just after midnight on July 20, 2012, a mentally ill, but sane -24-year-old PhD candidate in neuroscience left his booby-trapped apartment to execute a murderous plan 2 1/2 months in the making. Covered head-to-toe in body armor and using four firearms (12 gauge shotgun, two handguns, and a semi-automatic “assault style” rifle) he legally purchased after four background checks, the killer brought 700 rounds of ammo to a suburban Aurora movie theater and murdered 12 people and wounded another 70. His plan was to be the most successful mass murderer in American history.
After a nearly eight-month trial in 2015, we defeated his claim of insanity, convicted him, and had him sentenced to 12 consecutive life sentences plus 3,318 years of prison.
Colorado again responded quickly and passed laws mandating universal background checks and limiting magazine capacity to 15 rounds.
On December 13, 2013, an 18-year-old senior, upset at having been kicked off the debate team, entered Arapahoe High School in suburban Littleton with a legally purchased shotgun and home-made Molotov- style explosives through an unsecured side-door. Written on his forearm were the classroom numbers where he intended to bring his killing spree. He murdered an innocent young woman and attempted to kill others including the debate coach-and set the library ablaze. He took his own life in the library after being confronted by an SRO and school security.
In the early morning hours of Dec 31, 2017, in a suburban Highlands Ranch apartment, a mentally ill, 37-year-old attorney with 18 lawfully acquired weapons, including multiple assault-type rifles, opened fire on law enforcement officers, murdering one sheriff’s deputy and injuring six other people. He fired 186 bullets before SWAT officers could shoot and kill him. Colorado again quickly responded by passing a “red flag” law allowing a court to remove firearms from family members who are claimed to be a risk to themselves or others.
On May 7, 2019, a 16 and 18-year-old entered a classroom in a suburban Highlands Ranch high school with multiple firearms to kill their fellow students. They used an ax and a crowbar to break into a safe that secured the then-unloaded firearms at one of their houses. They were stopped by those in the classroom, one of whom was killed for his heroic efforts. There are some non-legislated efforts that have proven successful.
In December 2015, at a high school in the same suburban Highlands Ranch, two 16-year-old young women planned to carry out a Columbine-inspired massacre of their fellow students. It was derailed, not by any gun laws, but by a concerned student using Douglas County’s effective Text-a-Tip program. We must continue to discuss how best to keep guns out of the wrong hands.
But linking current federal and state legislation to preventing horrors like Boulder is mere political opportunism. We must continue to work to keep firearms out of the wrong hands, but we must also recognize that we cannot legislate away evil.
George H. Brauchler is the former district attorney for the 18th Judicial District. Follow him @GeorgeBrauchler.
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