Born in Glenwood Springs and raised outside Eagle, I grew up on the western slope of Colorado, where guns were from the beginning just a part of life. Before I can remember my father shot with a .22 rifle at the packrats who would invade the cabin up Salt Creek. Sometimes he did this to amuse guests. In an early memory of my own, there’s a fatally wounded mule deer buck in the field of sagebrush below the cabin, and my father goes down there with a rifle to put the creature out of its misery. Not that guns were a large part of my family’s life, by local standards. Other boys went elk hunting with their fathers at a time of year when my family and I merely put on bright orange clothing to go hiking in the woods. All I ever did with a gun myself was shoot at some paper targets my dad had tacked to a tree, or, later, pick off ground squirrels venturing from their burrows up Eby Creek, so that the horses wouldn’t step in the holes the squirrels had dug and break a leg.
Once when our family lived in town for a few years, there was a boy who’d taunted or insulted me somehow, so I followed him home one day after school and beat him up in his yard; I believe his sister was watching. I must have been ten. Later he ambushed me from a car park and beat me up, bloodying my nose, in front of a group of his friends. (I lied and said that the whole gang had attacked me.)
When I moved to a new school district a few years later, a boy named David Silva took to pretending my last name was pronounced ‘cunthole’. I sought him out one morning in the hallways of the Eagle Valley Middle School, asked him to stop calling me that and, when he refused, punched him in the face. The gym teacher dragged us to the principal’s office. Asked what seemed to be the matter, I screamed ‘He called me cunthole!’ while David (later a friend of mine) protested unpersuasively: ‘I thought that was his name.’
If I remember correctly, David was punished for the incident and I was not. Possibly this decision reflected an accurate sense of who started things, or, just as possibly, a prevailing racism: I was a blond boy with blue eyes, and David was, as we said at the time, Mexican. (I don’t think I’d heard the word Latino.)
What is the point of this recollection? Only that, then as now, there was in the US, and especially the West, both an abundance of firearms and an abundance of masculine violence – but, unlike now, they weren’t often combined into mass shootings. Spree killings had taken place, in Austin or San Diego, and (I’ve since learned) you could order an AR-15 through the mail, but gun massacres were extraordinary events, not ordinary ones.
It is conventional to date the era of relentless mass shootings in the US to the hecatomb at Columbine High School in Denver, Colorado, on 20 April 1999. (The perpetrators, whom I won’t name, had selected Hitler’s birthday for the event.) I was on a backpacking trip with a friend from college, who grew up in Denver, when someone emailed him something like: ‘So sad to learn the terrible news from Colorado.’ We consulted the internet on a computer terminal at our hostel and were astonished at a body count of thirteen. These days, nearly two hundred mass shootings in the US later (if mass shootings are defined as entailing the deaths of three or more people in a public setting: definitions vary), it remains possible to feel aghast, but no longer to be amazed. This is especially true if you live in Colorado, as I do again, having returned a few years ago to settle in Boulder.
Since Columbine (a school named after the state flower), Colorado has suffered more spectacular gun massacres than perhaps anywhere else, and only four other states, all of them in the West, have endured more such calamities per capita. The other day, on Monday, 22 March, when my partner and I were driving down highway 93, returning from the mountains, we saw an enormous congregation of police vehicles and ambulances outside the Table Mesa shopping centre, on the south side of town. ‘I wonder if that’s a mass shooting,’ one of us said.
It later emerged that a 21-year-old man from the Denver suburb of Arvada had allegedly driven the 25 miles to Boulder, in his brother’s black Mercedes, and shot dead ten people in a King Soopers grocery store, before being shot in the leg by police, stripping down to a pair of shorts, and surrendering. On being captured, he asked for his mother.
In A Room with a View, E.M. Forster complains of ‘the ghoulish fashion in which respectable people will nibble after blood’. The era of gun massacres in the US has coincided with the rise of social media, and the respectable way to nibble after blood is now to use the dead as ideological counters in posts on Facebook and Twitter. It isn’t enough to reiterate the plain truth that that the assault weapons used in mass shootings must be banned and confiscated. Instead, every fresh atrocity must be recruited into everyone’s preferred single-factor sociological narrative.
Many liberals have lately discovered ‘white supremacy’ as the key to world history, and so in an ecstasy of confirmation bias, they observe that the shirtless Boulder shooter has pale skin and has been captured alive. But then the alleged shooter turns out to have been born in Syria, and to have an Arab name.
In a moment the ideological baton switches hands, and right-wingers declare that an Arab murderer must be an asset of Islamic State. Inconveniently, it turns out that in November 2015 the suspect adopted the French tricolour as a filter for his Facebook profile in apparent solidarity with the victims of jihadist terror in Paris, and seemed to value Islam mostly as an injunction to kindness. The appeal of a religion of peace to a paranoiac with anger management problems is not hard to imagine. A former high-school wrestling squad teammate recalled that the suspect had once reacted to losing a match by threatening ‘to kill everybody’.
The apparent absence of anything that could be called a motive might lead you to conclude that the means involved in such crimes should be regulated, as the only way to prevent them. Not so, Senator John Kennedy of Louisiana assured his colleagues the day after the shooting in Boulder: ‘We have a lot of drunk drivers in America that kill a lot of people. The answer is not to get rid of all sober drivers.’ You wouldn’t guess from the analogy that the incidence of drunk-driving fatalities has declined by half in the US since harsher penalties were imposed on offenders, and permitted levels of blood alcohol reduced – much less that aspiring drivers, unlike shooters, must undergo a probationary period and a certification of competence before gaining legal access to their deadly machinery.
The politics of the burgeoning Socialist Rifle Association mirror those of the NRA, down to the pedantic scare quotes they place around ‘assault weapons’. ‘If you believe,’ the SRA tweeted after the Boulder massacre, ‘that firearms or “assault weapons” should be restricted or banned, do you also believe that American police (with guns) will enforce those laws fairly and equally with regard to race, gender and political belief?’ The glib, posturing gun-nuts of the left betray no idea that laws against rape and murder also disfavour Black people suspected of such crimes, without it following that rape and murder should be legalised. Nor do they seem to care that the victims of gun violence in the US, mass shootings included, are disproportionately people of colour. To round off their fatuousness, they pretend that if a socialist revolution were to take place on American soil their own fumbling contribution to the affray would be decisive.
Evident in all discussion of the United States’ innumerable gun massacres is a kind of talking-points-ification of American discourse. Public commentary on these regular atrocities substitutes for argument rather than participating in it. The point is to guard your ideological niche rather than protect anyone’s life.
I don’t suppose it can matter very much to the people who loved the victims of the Boulder shootings what moved the killer to act as he did. America’s champion mass shooter remains a 64-year-old white tax adjuster who in 2017 sequestered himself in his Las Vegas hotel room with fourteen AR-15 type rifles, eight AR-10s, a Ruger American bolt-action rifle and a Smith & Wesson revolver, and – on the basis of ‘no clear or single motivating factor’, in the ultimate assessment of the FBI – killed sixty people attending that whitest of all spectacles, a country music concert, wounding 867 others. Racists sometimes want to kill a great number of people. So do Islamists. So do misogynists. So do confused lunatics. So do perfect nihilists. And so do I myself on those occasions when I am so tired of all the killing that I feel I wouldn’t mind strolling into NRA headquarters and wasting everyone on site.
It may be tedious to say the obvious thing: none of us angry men should have a semi-automatic in our hands, and it’s long past time to prohibit these weapons. But horror and pain, it turns out, can become tedious too. Tedium plus horror: the definition of hell.