When a gunman opened fire in the Table Mesa King Soopers on Monday, March 22, prematurely ending the lives of 10 people, his bullets also ripped a wound in my homeplace. Boulder is the only home I’ve ever known. I was born here. I grew up here. After moving away for a few years, I came back here to pursue a Ph.D. at the University of Colorado Boulder. Like many, I have shopped at that King Soopers. I have multiple friends and colleagues who live within walking distance of that supermarket. Before last Monday it was just an average grocery store. It could have been anywhere in America.
Six days earlier, a gunman killed eight people in Atlanta. I am writing this piece because I believe these two events were not separate from each other, nor are they separate from any of the other mass shootings that have plagued this country for the past several decades. We have to talk about the common conditions of these events. We have to talk about guns. And we have to talk about race.
Six of the eight people murdered in Atlanta were Asian American women. The fact that the suspected shooter deliberately sought out massage parlors, attributing his rampage to his sexual frustration, has everything to do with the unique ways Asian American women are sexualized by white men in the U.S. In Boulder, the media narrative took a sharp turn when images of the suspected shooter — who commentators immediately labeled white — were paired with an Arabic name. Fox News wasn’t covering the shooting at all until his name was released.
Race is visible in these two cases. But race is also at play in every other mass shooting — when the suspected shooter is white, race defines how we don’t tell the story. Despite the vast majority of mass shooters being young white men, most Americans don’t look on all young white men with suspicion, believing that they might be violent criminals. The same cannot be said for young Black, Latino, Chicano, Arab American or South Asian men.
The stories we tell about who the suspected shooter was, and why he (it almost always is a “he”) did what he did, are always inflected by race. More importantly, these stories distract from the conditions that make these shootings possible in the first place. There is a familiar script to these events: thoughts and prayers, followed by arguments over gun rights, followed by complacency and inertia. We turn our attention to punishing the suspected shooter — justice means making sure he gets sent to prison. We treat the symptom and then we move on, without addressing any of the root causes that made the symptom occur.
I am talking about the absurd ease with which Americans can purchase assault-style weapons with high-capacity magazines — tools whose only purpose is to efficiently end human life. I am talking about the lack of investment in community mental health resources, which is hard to separate from the enormous investment in police and in prisons.
The SWAT and police forces that responded to the Boulder suspected shooter were well-equipped with military gear — equipment they would not need if the suspected shooter weren’t able to purchase an AR-15 in the first place. Having a gun does not make you safer — presumably, the first police officer to respond to the scene had a gun and was trained to use it. His life is over.
And I am talking about white supremacy, the way the Second Amendment only ever seems to apply to white people, the way a mass killing is “senseless” until the suspected shooter is not white, at which point it’s terrorism.
There are concrete steps we know we can take. Press our public officials for common sense gun laws — no assault weapons, no high-capacity magazines, routine waiting periods, thorough background checks. Invest in community mental health. And note and be aware of the role race plays in how we tell the stories of these events.
We need to stop privileging the individual right to gun ownership over the collective right to gather safely in public, a right that is also enshrined in the U.S. Constitution. And we need to expand our notion of justice: Instead of seeing the imprisonment of an individual as a satisfactory solution, we need to change the conditions of our society before they produce the next shooter.
Watching the news last Monday, I heard person after person say, “I never imagined this could happen in Boulder.” Having grown up here, having lived through Columbine then Aurora, having heard people call loudly for change and watched nothing change time and again, I can’t say that I agree. Until we address the root causes — gun access, mental health, misogyny, racism — the list of places forever associated with horrific acts of violence will continue to grow. Nowhere in this country is immune. Unless we change the conditions, it is only a matter of time.
Ben Baron is Ph.D. student at the University of Colorado Boulder.
This opinion column does not necessarily reflect the views of Boulder Weekly.