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Just around the corner / March 25, 2021
South Boston News

A Denver-area King Soopers grocery store (Wikipedia)

Ever hop on a flight or get invited to a party and find yourself rubbing shoulders with a famous person in the news? Yeah, me neither. The Rich and Famous are not like you and me, but surely you, too, would get tired of signing autographs or having people gush all over you in similar circumstances, so the rarity of celebrity contact with us plebes is understandable. But while it’s generally not possible to make direct contact with newsmakers, experiencing a personal connection with events in the news does happen from time to time. Take me. A year and a half ago, I was shopping for Tide Pods and beer at the King Soopers grocery store in Boulder, Colo.

The occasion was a family vacation out West to experience the grandeur of the Rockies (gateway to the Rockies, really, from the vantage point of the Boulder foothills) and tool around the delightful metropolis, home to the University of Colorado. For a few days of our visit, the three of us (son Wil was unable to make the trip) camped out at the apartment of cousin and nephew Neil (wife’s side of the family) who is a Ph.D candidate in astrophysics at the university. Neil and his girlfriend had gone out of town and let us use their apartment for a few days of our visit. The Tide Pods were a token of appreciation for their kindness (the millennials love Tide Pods, I’m reliably told) and the beer was for my wife and me. As it happens, the King Soopers lies about a block away, an easy and convenient walk.

What would one say about the Boulder, Colo., King Soopers grocery under normal circumstances? It had an excellent produce selection and a nice beer aisle, with an interesting selection of craft brews made in Colorado and the Rocky Mountain states, but otherwise it was a fairly unexceptional supermarket. Except for that name. “King Soopers” used to be a source of amusement. Now it’s anguish.

On Tuesday, 10 people were killed at the King Soopers next to my nephew’s apartment by a 21-year-old male suspect who entered with a Ruger AR-556 semiautomatic pistol and started firing away. No one seems to know quite why, although the usual dreary reports — he was picked on at school, was prone to violent outbursts, ad nauseam — have begun to trickle out. The incorrect but understandable reaction to all of this — which is to say, the reaction most of us will adopt beyond the obligatory expression of thoughts and prayers — is to shake your head and move on. Another mass shooting in America. Guess you’ll tell me the sun came up this morning, too.

Seeing such heartbreak happen at a place where you were shopping for avocados and chips not so long ago does heighten one’s attentiveness to the particular episode of violence, however. Boulder, for the record, is a pretty magnificent town — friendly people, fun stuff to do everywhere, mountainsides that you can hike all day without having to drive more than a mile or two to reach the trailhead, and on and on. That life in such an idyllic place could be shattered in the blink of an eye by a mixed-up kid with “issues” should drive home the reality that mass shootings can happen anywhere: at school, at the workplace, at church, at the grocery store where you shop. Why would anyone think they’re somehow immune?

If your answer is, “I’m packing, which means I can be the good guy with the gun who stops the bad guy with the gun,” tell that to the seven orphaned children of Boulder cop Eric Talley, the first officer to respond to the scene. By all accounts Talley was a highly professional officer who is now a fallen hero despite having a gun at his side for protection. You want to pretend to the grieving children of Officer Talley that you’d do any better in his shoes? The audacity and cruelty of such a thought is breathtaking.

Maybe the worst part of the Boulder shooting, and the Atlanta shooting earlier in the week that claimed eight lives, six of them Asian American — aside from the blood spilled, the lives ruined forever — is knowing that not a damn thing will change as a result. The Onion captured this dynamic best with an epic piece of black humor from years ago: “‘No Way To Prevent This,’ Says Only Nation Where This Regularly Happens.” According to Wikipedia, which seems to be pretty reliable on the matter (it tells you how deeply this headline sliced into the hypocrisy of gun rights hysteria that it would have its own Wikipedia entry), The Onion came up with the idea in the wake of a 2014 mass shooting in the Santa Barbara, Calif. area and has rolled out essentially the same headline and 200-word news satire 17 times since. Even at that depressing clip The Onion is passing up opportunities to make the point, over and over and over some more. Our latest national tragedy is something else besides: a national embarrassment.

The point here? Simply this: I refuse to believe — and you should, too — that “No Way To Prevent This” is really the best we can do about America’s epic gun violence. In one undeniable respect, what happened in both the Boulder and Atlanta mass slaughters is pretty basic: Someone with no business having a gun got ahold of a gun and killed a bunch of people. In the two recent shootings, the perpetrators were young men who gave people around them the willies, but otherwise seem to have done little that would have run afoul of background checks or drawn much response from mental health providers, unless you think social workers and psychiatrists somehow possess the ability to spot the mass killer out of a sea of individuals dealing with mental health challenges (spoiler alert: they don’t.)

The only thoroughgoing solution, relatively speaking, is the one adopted by countries that don’t have “this problem”: Not allowing people to have easy access to guns, if any access at all. Can the same thing happen in America? Realistically, no. Not even close. Is there something else we can do? Let’s talk.

I want to throw out an idea here, one that will surely go nowhere, which at least puts me in good company. First, focus on the weapons of warfare that exact such a terrible toll as we saw this week in Boulder, and aside from maybe enacting some beefed-up background checks and red flag laws where appropriate, leave the rest of the Second Amendment debate out of the picture. (About the Ruger AR-556 handgun used in the Boulder shooting, 30-year ATF agent turned college professor Joseph Vince told The Denver Post, “It’s not a sporting rifle, it’s not a hunting rifle. It’s made for the military and short-range combat.”) Doing anything to regulate these weapons amid the acrimonious politics of gun control will require one of two things: steamrolling the opposition, or somehow finding common ground. Since the first option isn’t available, and probably won’t be for the foreseeable future, that leaves the second, which seems equally impossible. But is it?

What if people on my side, who don’t own guns and want to keep guns out of the hands of mass murderers, aren’t actually all that different from people who do own guns, and want to keep people from using guns to commit mass murder? Rather than eyeing each other like scorpions in a bottle, suppose I, as benevolent ambassador of Blue America, said to denizens of Red America (i.e., most everyone I know and generally like around town), “Here. My proposed deal is that you get to make the call on this issue, on the basis of having a sincere desire to halt the bloodshed, too. Let’s allow anyone who wants to purchase a gun to do so, with a few caveats: With most long guns and handguns, they must complete a gun safety course offered through the NRA or similar organization. To purchase a semi-automatic, AR-style weapon, you would either need to be an NRA member, a member of a local gun club or hunting club or shooting range, and if people can’t afford the dues we’ll subsidize that, all in the name of promoting responsible gun ownership. Not coincidentally, one aspect of this proposal is that we deputize Second Amendment supporters with bona fide gun safety credentials as the deciders of who qualifies to own a gun, and create a gatekeeper process that keeps some messed-up kid from purchasing an AR on the spot because his girlfriend broke up with him or someone looked at him the wrong way or whatever. Let’s affirm gun ownership as a right and uphold it as a responsibility, too.

There are obviously a lot of problems with this idea. Proposing that we elevate the status of the NRA and subsidize its existence? What’s next, guest hosting the Rush Limbaugh Show? Given the toxic political antics of the NRA (let’s not leave out the corruption of the national leadership as well) it’s easy to overlook the fact that NRA gun safety education is a genuine public service of the sort we could use a lot more of nowadays, unless you’re putting your hopes on Zombie Hillary Clinton coming on superfast to take everybody’s guns away. What may strike some people as most bonkers about this idea is the presumption that Second Amendment absolutists would be moved to act to keep innocents from being gunned down in mass slaughters if it means the freedom of someone to own a gun must be moderated or regulated. That’s where I beg to differ. If we aren’t going to get rid of guns, at least let’s hold gun owners at their word about wanting to promote a culture of responsible gun ownership, and vest in them the authority (or influence, at least) to decide if some hothead should have a high-powered rifle to tote around.

As noted: A crazy, perhaps idiotic idea. But would the assailants in the Boulder and Atlanta shootings acted differently in the company of responsible gun owners — and would responsible gun owners be content to sit back as two disturbed individuals acquired an arsenal? In the seeming absence of any viable solution to mass shootings, we ought to at least rethink ways to overcome the paralysis that has beset America’s gun politics. Here’s a vote for widening the circle of solution seekers to include gun enthusiasts as well as gun skeptics. That is to say, maybe we all need to step off our political and ideological hobbyhorses to find an answer, however imperfect or ungainly or ugly it may be. A hopelessly naive sentiment? Probably.

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