First we ruined the mundane sanctity of schools. Then we spoiled the routine excitement of a superhero movie premier.
Then we periodically, relentlessly, violently destroyed the everyday pleasure of the grocery store, where the lights are always on, the clerks are concierges to middle class life and we can pick up a sugar reward for checking an errand off the list.
The horrific killings of 10 people at an average King Soopers on an average Monday in Boulder, where they stood in line to get the COVID vaccine or buy a sandwich, is only the latest in a spate of mass shootings in U.S. grocery stores. And the grocery stores are only the latest prosaic backdrop to mass gun murders, whose modern era can be traced to Columbine High School at one end with the other end not in sight.
The terror these events put into Coloradans trying to go about their everyday lives is nearly universal, as soon as you ask.
Highlands Ranch mom Gina Abbey was sledding with her kids when her husband called Monday afternoon to ask, “Where are you, don’t go to the grocery store.”
Abbey wasn’t planning to. But she had to shop on Tuesday, and found herself walking through the aisles going through the bizarre mental checklist that is now part of life in cities and suburbs: Where would she hide first if she heard shots? Could she stop or slow down a shooter to help others? What did those brave passengers do on the hijacked 9/11 plane, and would she be tough enough to do that?
All for some groceries. If she had answers, Abbey said, she’d be president. For long before Boulder happened, she and her husband had been thinking about their kids and whether they are safe at school. It’s hard not to think about, since their house is just down the street from the STEM School Highlands Ranch, where one student was killed and eight others injured by a fellow student in 2019.
“We pray. And you just be aware,” she said.
It’s the kind of calculation Coloradans have had to get used to, said psychiatrist Dr. Carl Clark, chief executive of the Mental Health Center of Denver, serving thousands of patients each year. Clark talks to patients about it frequently, but also has to keep it in mind for his employees. Like any large place of business these days, MHCD has used active shooter drills to train employees.
“This was a regular, ordinary day, people going to the grocery store, people going to get the vaccine, and then you have something like this happen,” Clark said. “Now it will be in peoples’ minds, ‘Will I be safe even going to the grocery store?’ And you feel like you don’t have any control.”
The concept of vicarious trauma is a real thing, and unfortunately has piled up for Coloradans through tragedy near and far, from Columbine to Aurora to a Thornton Walmart to the Atlanta shootings that were still reverberating when Boulder hit, Clark said. In vicarious trauma, people are hurt in a real way by learning of the hurt of others.
“You’re standing on the edge of a pool and someone else gets pushed into the water. You get splashed on,” Clark said.
Another psychiatrist, retired from MHCD, was in the Boulder King Soopers five minutes before the shooting started, Clark said.
One partial solution is to stop reading this story. Or others like it. One of Clark’s first pieces of advice about vicarious trauma is to reduce the amount of exposure to video footage, news accounts or nonstop discussions about shootings. The impact of the Boulder murders will be deepened by widely available, live video footage, including graphic scenes of victims, seen by tens of thousands of viewers apparently while the tragedy was still unfolding.
“There are things people can do to deal with the stress; the dose of media is one thing,” he said.
Where anxiety and hope collide
Coloradans’ sense of loss seemed heightened by their perceptions of the hope and optimism other people were feeling just a few minutes before a gunman opened fire in Boulder. Some people killed at the Table Mesa King Soopers were apparently standing in line for the coronavirus vaccine.
Shoppers had made it through the worst stages of the pandemic, things were opening up, life was supposed to be getting “normalized,” said Jay French, owner of Table Mesa Hardware in the same shopping complex as the King Soopers. “This feels like kind of a slap in the face.”
French was away from his store getting a phone fixed when the shooting began. His employees sheltered and were safe. He dreaded hearing the names of those who died, because so many King Soopers customers and employees are regular hardware store shoppers. He briefly considered closing Tuesday as a pause for the victims and the community, but is also proud the store stayed open and was heavily used during the entire pandemic as a provider of essential things.
“I wanted to assess it before the employees came in,” French said. When he arrived Tuesday, he felt the “paradox” of a beautiful morning under the snowy Flatirons, spotlighted by sunshine. “But it was a heavy feel,” French said. “A very somber feel.”
Table Mesa Hardware employee Andrew Raup was filling sandbags in the store’s yard Monday when he heard what he thought was fireworks and later realized was the gunfire. Coming in Tuesday morning, the customarily packed parking lot he drives through was blocked off.
“It felt weird with no one in that parking lot. Usually it’s so mundane, there’s tons of people there when I go through it,” Raup said.
Jenna Wegner works the front desk at a dental office in the same complex. They go over to King Soopers to pick up lunch most days of the week. She wonders what she’ll think about next time she goes for lunch.
She heard about a customer who fled out the back of the store, past the prone body of someone who was nearby when hit by a bullet.
“His biggest regret was that he didn’t stop to help,” Wegner said. “I don’t know what I would do . . . I do self-checkout from the same spot, and a bullet flew right past him. I feel like that would be so hard to be heroic in that same situation.”
Prosecutors who have seen the worst in the aftermath of Colorado mass shootings say they, too, find it hard to stop thinking about the scenes inside, and how much it impacts average people who expect safety in public spaces.
“Nobody goes to a grocery store looking over their shoulder,” said George Brauchler, the former district attorney in Colorado’s 18th Judicial District who handled the Aurora theater shooting. “I just don’t know how long that’s going to be true for Colorado in the near term.”
Psychiatrists say there is no magic in easing the fears of Coloradans worried about gun violence in routine places. They have too much evidence to the contrary, and more each year. Clark said one of his go-to reactions is to accept the stress as a reality, however harsh.
Acknowledging the stress first, Clark said, “moves you from the first reaction of flight or fight, and actually moves into problem solving in a different part of your brain, into your frontal lobes. And then you can sort what you have control over from what you don’t,” he said.
“What if I go to a store and something happens?”
Many Colorado parents say they find it depressing that their school-age children are used to these kinds of calculations, if not entirely comfortable with them.
Colorado teenagers create a hierarchy of safe spaces, then are forced to reshuffle them.
Daniela and Eduardo Gutierrez, 19 and 16, stopped by the impromptu memorial near the Boulder King Soopers, bringing flowers. At Fairview High School, just south of the store, they get active shooter drills, and have endured lockdowns from rumors of bombs or shooters.
“We could totally relate, because we had a threat at school,” Daniela said.
The Starbucks at the Table Mesa King Soopers was where they went for drinks and snacks after school.
“It’s really shocking,” she said. “We thought it was the safest place.”
Colorado Sun staff writer Jesse Paul contributed to this report.