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Littwin: We can say we’re shocked and horrified by the Boulder mass murders, but we can’t say we’re surprised

We no longer have the luxury of surprise. But now Biden is calling for Congress to ban assault rifles. And if, by some miracle, that were to happen, we would be astonished.


Maybe what angers me most about the mass murder at the King Soopers in Boulder is that we’ve lost the ability to be surprised.

We can be shocked, yes, because this one happened someplace that we know. We can be heartbroken, surely, that 10 people who should be alive today were slaughtered at a grocery store. We can, as we should, thank the first responders, particularly when one of them, Eric Talley, was among those killed.

But we cannot claim surprise. We used to ask if this is really who we are. No one asks that anymore. It was just days ago that eight were killed in Atlanta. As Joe Biden pointed out, the flags are still at half staff. We might not like it, but, yes, it is who we are.

Mike Littwin

And we lost the luxury of surprise long ago. Certainly, we’ve lost it in Colorado, where mass shootings have become part of the state’s identity. Following the Boulder massacre, the New York Times was moved to publish a list of the mass shootings in Colorado since Columbine. The Denver Post reprised an analysis from 2019 showing that Colorado trailed only four states in mass shootings per capita.

In fact, the only thing that would be surprising now is if we actually did something to address gun violence. After Sandy Hook, something changed for me. If the murder of 20 6-year-olds didn’t move Congress to act, I had to concede that maybe nothing ever would. 

And yet, we can’t stop trying because, I mean, who would we be if we did?

In remarks Tuesday, Biden called for banning assault rifles and limiting magazine sizes. He called for the Senate passage of background bills passed by the House. It should be noted that in the otherwise infamous Biden crime bill from the ’90s, assault rifles were, in fact, banned. But the ban required congressional renewal after 10 years, and Congress predictably refused. Maybe that’s part of what Barack Obama was thinking Tuesday while blaming “cowardly politicians” and the “gun lobby” for refusing to take action on gun violence.

Meanwhile, in a Senate hearing, Ted Cruz said, “Every time there’s a shooting, we play this ridiculous theater where this committee gets together and proposes a bunch of laws that would do nothing to stop these murders. What happens in this committee after every mass shooting is Democrats propose taking away guns from law-abiding citizens because that’s their political objective.”

It’s theater, in just the way that Rand Paul said wearing masks during a pandemic was theater. Don’t they understand this is real life? 

And don’t they understand that, in this life, we’re more heavily armed than ever? According to FBI data, gun sales rose 40% last year to 39,695,315. And this past January set a record for the month. In 1999, the first year that the FBI kept records, the number of gun sales was just over 9 million.

▶︎ Read more of Mike Littwin’s columns.

Do Democrats want to grab your guns? We heard that when Clinton was president and when Obama was president. And we hear it again now that Biden is president. Nothing is better for gun sales than a Democratic president.

The number of guns in America is startling. No peer country has nearly as many guns or nearly as many gun deaths. Let me agree, sort of, with the NRA here. It’s not the guns that are the issue. It’s gun violence. And if addressing gun violence means limiting certain kinds of guns, certain kinds of magazines, certain kinds of bullets, meaning we’d still have hundreds of millions of guns in people’s hands, Ted Cruz can call that gun grabbing. I’d call it a small step in an effort to save lives.

In Colorado, following the Aurora massacre, the state legislature passed a few significant laws. In response, the gun lobby led the recall of two legislators while another quit. This year, with Democrats firmly in control, the legislature is considering several gun safety bills, including one that would extend the waiting period to obtain a gun after purchase.

We have a red flag law in Colorado. And we have some sheriffs who openly say they won’t enforce it. It’s time for a national red flag law and civil penalties for those who refuse to enforce it. We can theft-proof guns. We can make background checks tougher. The Washington Post did a story the other day showing that in many states, it’s easier to buy a rifle than it is to register to vote.

Mass shootings are a small part of the problem. But the horror of these shootings does focus the mind, at least briefly. We now understand — or at least some of us do — that while “thoughts and prayers” are needed, many people who claim to offer them are actually saying that thoughts and prayers are sufficient. When people say it’s too soon to discuss these things, what they often mean is that it’s always too soon. In fact, it’s nearly always too late.

Meanwhile, we barely even notice the many daily shooting deaths, unless they’re happening in Chicago and someone wants to make the killings a political story. There were more than 40,000 deaths by gunshot in 2019, a majority of them suicides. In 2017, 75% of murders involved a gun and half of suicides.

NBC News is reporting that the family of the alleged shooter, Ahmad Al Aliwi Alissa, is saying he had mental problems. If true, that would hardly be a surprise. Alissa attacked a classmate at Arvada West High School in 2017 when he was 18 years old. According to the affidavit, he told police that the student had “made fun of him and called him racial names weeks earlier.”

We’ll learn about the motives, which are, of course, important. But they’re not the most important thing.

What we’ve learned over the years is that most mass murder cases come at the place where disturbed young men and easy access to powerful guns intersect. We know this. We know that’s the starting place. When some senator says proposing guns laws is theater, many in Colorado flash back to the Aurora theater. Did we think then it couldn’t happen again? Do we think that now? Because obviously it has. Again and again and again.


Mike Littwin has been a columnist for too many years to count. He has covered Dr. J, four presidential inaugurations, six national conventions and countless brain-numbing speeches in the New Hampshire and Iowa snow.


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