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Aurora shooting anniversary: Is rhetoric mightier than the gun?

Saturday marked the one-year anniversary of the Aurora, Colorado, shooting which killed 12 people and wounded many more. Since then, there have been both advances and setbacks in gun control.

By Staff writer / July 20, 2013

Jasmine Christman, left, is comforted by her mother Yulanda Vega Jordan and father Jack Jordan during a memorial service in Aurora, Colo., on Saturday, July 20, 2013. Coloradans marked the one-year anniversary of the Aurora movie theater massacre with a city-sponsored "Day of Remembrance."

Ed Andrieski/AP

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Coloradans – and many other Americans – took a moment on Saturday to reflect on the turbulent, sometimes violent year that’s passed since a grad school dropout dressed as a “Batman” character opened fire on moviegoers in Aurora, killing 12 people and hurting 58 others, before being captured.

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The shooting was followed by more tragedy, in Newtown, Conn., in December – a sequence of horror which kicked off a national gun debate that has traveled a horizon-to-horizon arc.

In a mere 365 days, the country has seen what it looks like when guns, in Holmes’ case, are used as part of someone’s deadly fantasy, and what society says constitutes legitimate self-defense with a firearm, as in the George Zimmerman trial which concluded last week with his acquittal on all charges related to the shooting death of black teenager Trayvon Martin.

And in the middle, the country’s first black president, himself trying to navigate a new cultural dynamic that’s as much about the apotheosis of the Second Amendment as unmasking racial biases and stereotyping by armed whites.

Reflecting on the effects of gun violence on Travyon Martin, President Obama struck an egalitarian note, urging not federal legislative or prosecutorial action, but for each American to think about how to “wring” biases from their own hearts.

After Newtown, Obama appointed Vice President Joe Biden to head a gun safety task force, out of which Obama and Congressional Democrats crafted a moderate gun control package in answer to the 20 slain grade-schoolers at Sandy Hook Elementary School.

In Colorado, Holmes’ dazed, even crazed, appearance at his first court hearing underscored the potential role of mental illness in the shooting. The fact that Holmes legally bought all the guns and chemical explosives to put his sinister plan into motion highlighted, many lawmakers felt, a weakness in the background check system, especially since many of his ammo and combat gear purchases were made online.

But the Senate gun control bill – a bipartisan plan which would have strengthened provisions to keep criminals and the mentally ill from buying guns – failed, 54-46.

At the time, Obama called the collapse of the gun control package “shameful.” "Most of these senators could not offer any good reason for why we wouldn't want to make it harder for criminals and those with severe mental illnesses to buy a gun," Obama said.

But while the Congressional route failed, Colorado has become a symbol for how at least a “purple state” – one with about equally strong liberal versus conservative instincts in the populace – can at least nudge toward reducing the threat of gun violence without carving too deeply into the Second Amendment.

Gov. John Hickenlooper, a Democrat, signed gun control measures significant for a big Western hunting state, banning, for example, the kinds of extra-large ammunition magazines used by Holmes to fire rapidly and at length into the crowd.

Progress hasn’t come without political rhetoric, even at a time of reflection.

At one gun control vigil, activists are reading the names of thousands of people killed by gunfire in the year since the shooting. They’ll keep reading until 12:38 p.m. Mountain Time, the moment when Holmes commenced his sneak attack during the showing of a Batman movie.

Second Amendment supporters, Reuters noted, also gathered at the park to protest what they saw as crude political exploitation of tragedy by gun control activists.

Memorials and vigils today in Colorado will likely see both gun rights and gun control advocates – some with ties to national groups – face off peacefully as they pray and ponder the year where senseless gun massacres sparked the US to begin a substantive debate about the uniquely American interplay between guns and violence. That tension seems at times cemented into place by the Second Amendment’s guarantee that Americans, by birth, have a right to bear arms.

What price James Holmes, the alleged Aurora shooter, will ultimately pay as a consequence of how he used his legally acquired arsenal may be known by the second anniversary of the Aurora theater massacre. Holmes is scheduled to go to trial on Feb. 3, 2014. 

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