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Guns and Love and Fear

I grew up in Hawaii and sang in a choir.  We were a very tight group of teenagers from various schools.  We were laid back and went to the beach together and sang our hearts out.  Then we all grew up and followed our paths until we met up again on Facebook a number of years ago.  And we were different.  Last night one of my friends, who moved to the Midwest,  posted something supportive of Wayne LaPierre of the NRA and I went ballistic.  I reached out to him and asked how he could possibly hold this view in light of what has been happening lately.  Massacre after massacre after massacre and he still thinks the laws on the books are enough?  He told me about being assaulted once and having a friend who was raped and about his opinion that if good guys were armed then we could fight back against the bad guys.  He wrote “the slippery slope to me is that once a law starts to be framed, it morphs into something very different from its original intent. A well intended law can become a monster with irreversible consequences.”

I told him about my experiences covering massacres like Columbine and the Aurora Theatre shooting for NBC News and meeting victim families and feeling the pain and suffering of survivors as I’ve asked them to share their stories.  I told him about the funeral for Officer Garrett Swasey that I just attended and how a gun didn’t help the good guy on the day he died outside the Colorado Springs Planned Parenthood office.  I told him about the very moving End of Watch video that was shown at his service.  I fired back that “apparently people are morphing the second amendment and the constitution into something the founding fathers never intended.”  He and I will never agree on this topic, we are on complete opposite sides of the argument and shake our heads at the other’s point of view, but we had a respectful on line discussion and wished each other a happy holiday season.

Today I mentioned our exchange to my instructor at yoga and he suggested that I come from a place of love and my friend comes from a place of fear.  Last night it seemed that way to me too, but the more I think of it, the more I realize we both come from the same place.  He loves his friends and family and community and I feel the same way about mine.  He thinks the way to protect his people is with guns and I think the way for my people to be safe is to get rid of them.  We are both fearful of where our country is going after Sandy Hook and San Bernardino.  How we differ is in the way to get there.  He holds tight to his rights and his AR-15, and I hold tight to my rights to live in a land free of gun violence and semi-automatic weapons.  I may be naive, but I hope by having the discussion we are a step closer to compromise and something we both can live with.

The dialogue over gun control has devolved into something akin to the fiery rhetoric over abortion.  It is so black and white that it seems there is no middle ground.  The person who shot his gun through the front page editorial about gun control on Saturday’s New York Times is an indication of how counterproductive this argument has become.  People have dug their heels so deeply in the sand they cannot be budged.  But on the issue of gun violence we need to budge.  Hopefully my conversation with my friend is a move towards understanding and maybe others will talk to their friends and neighbors and we will have a larger national conversation that will lead once and for all to our leaders having the courage to craft some common sense solutions that create a safer nation for my friend’s children and mine.  And no, even though my friend worried I would unfriend him, we both have agreed to leave the door open for future conversations.

 


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Listening to Victims: Closing thoughts on four months covering the Aurora Theatre shooting trial

When Kathleen Larimer, who lost her son, John, in the Aurora Theatre shooting, made her victim impact statement in the final days of the trial, she began by telling the judge “I am so tired of crying.” She and her husband, Scott, had been in the courtroom every day for four months, looking for answers that might help make sense of the murder of their youngest child. Over 100 people like Mrs. Larimer stood before Judge Carlos Samour in an Arapahoe County Courthouse and poured out their hearts in victim impact statements about the loss and devastation they experienced because of James Holmes.

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On July 20, 2012, I also took my teenage son to see “The Dark Knight Rises” at the midnight showing in Aurora, Colorado. Our theatre, however, was a few miles away from the Century 16. When the show was over I realized I had missed calls. Many calls. I rushed to the Century 16 Theatre to join my colleagues at NBC News in covering one of the most horrific mass shootings ever. It was so staggering in its carnage and complexity that it was difficult to get my head around it, even after covering the massacre at Columbine High School. The day of the attack was the first time victims began to tell their stories. The sentencing was the end of the three-year odyssey for those touched by the crime.

Over the months, sitting in the courtroom every day, we finally got some answers about the crime and why it happened. But even with light shed on the attack, it could not fill the dark hole in the hearts of the families who lost loved ones. Their anguish was palpable over the months.  The large family of victims held each other up, especially during the last days of the trial, when they finally told the judge, in their own powerful voices, what they experienced, and asked for a maximum sentence for the defendant who dodged the bullet of a death penalty.

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When District Attorney George Brauchler made his final argument in the case, asking the judge to show no mercy to “this guy” and give the “maximum sentence for the maximum evil,” I heard Mrs. Larimer sobbing quietly behind me. For months she and the other family members would sit across the aisle on the other side of the courtroom. I could swivel my head and observe them at key moments, document when they cried, when they glared at the defendant, when they couldn’t take it any more and left the courtroom. Listening to Mrs. Larimer cry right behind me captured my complete attention. I did not turn around to see her, but her sorrow could not be ignored and I listened.

On Wednesday, August 26, Judge Samour made his pre-sentencing comments to the court. He addressed the concerns of victims who said the trial had been a waste of time and money, as the defendant had been willing to plead guilty two years earlier to avoid the death penalty. Samour suggested they should focus on what came out of the trial rather than on regretting the decisions that were made. Then, for each of the twelve who were slain, he referred back to victim impact testimonies and specific points made about those loved and lost. Was it a waste of time when Chantal Blunk spoke about her husband, Jonathan? Was it a waste of time when Sierra Cowden talked about her dad, Gordon? Was it a waste of time when Teresa Hoover spoke about her son, AJ? What struck me as he recalled their names and remarkable lives was that the judge heard the victims. He really heard them.

Judge Samour gave the defendant one of the harshest sentences ever imposed. Twelve life sentences without the possibility of parole and an additional 3,318 years for the people he injured plus an explosives charge. Then dripping with contempt he said “Sheriff, get the defendant out of my courtroom, please.” Breaking with four months of decorum the victims cheered and applauded as James Holmes was taken from the court one last time. 1,132 days after the attack these families can now contemplate moving forward. Some have been galvanized into activism. They are fighting for common sense gun controls and working hard so that the faces of killers are not remembered long after the faces of their victims.  Many, like Kathleen Larimer, are not certain what the future holds but through her tears, she found her voice. “Now that this is over, I have to go home and live with all that emptiness, and yet somehow be happy with life going on,” she said. And when she came up to the microphone that last time, everybody listened.


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Guns In My Backyard

The other night while having dinner on our deck on a warm summer evening we heard automatic weapons fire.  We live in the suburbs of Denver, about a mile as the crow flies from the Family Shooting Center in Cherry Creek State Park.  We often hear the peppering of gunfire as people shoot and train with handguns and rifles.  It is background noise for us, just like the planes flying over our house as they line up to land at nearby Centennial Airport.  But this night was different.  It sounded like we were on the front lines in Syria or Afghanistan.  The shooting went on forever.  Non-stop uninterrupted automatic weapons fire.  I called the Sheriff’s office and they said they were getting numerous complaints.  Then I called and left a message at the range, saying they were being insensitive and not being good neighbors, especially in light of the recent Aurora shooting which left so many people dead, injured and on edge.

Much to my surprise, the next evening, the proprietor of Family Shooting Center, Doug Hamilton, called me.  He was very earnest and apologetic that we were disturbed.  He was certain it was an unusual confluence of atmospheric conditions that carried the sound all the way to us.  He told me they were having a special demonstration event for the staff that they do once a year.  He said he was calling back everyone who left a number and wanted to assure me that they were good neighbors.  He even told me about sound buffers they were installing.  We had a good dialogue, but when I suggested to him that perhaps they do not need to fire off automatic weapons at the range, or if it was essential to have this event annually, perhaps his staff could take a field trip to the country, he went silent.  He listened politely to my feelings but when we hung up I wasn’t sure he really heard them.

And therein lies the disconnect.  I will be candid.  I am not a gun person but in recent years my stance has softened dramatically.  My car dealer has his concealed carry permit.  My son’s best friend hunts.  I visited the Tanner Gun Show and understood why some women felt they needed to have a handgun.  I get that people want guns for recreation and protection.  I have learned to respect their rights.  I believe I am being very reasonable.  But I cannot understand why we need to have automatic weapons in my neighborhood or in any neighborhood for that matter.  When I posted my story on Facebook the jaws of my friends in Canada and Australia dropped.  They couldn’t get their heads around an evening in the suburbs listening to automatic weapons fire or even the irony of a place called Family Shooting Center.  They have such a different world view from ours.

Not long ago in another direction a mile away from my house a new business opened.  It is a gun store, with a built in range, and the owners intend to turn the empty lot across the way into a gun club.  Right across the street from my Starbucks and Einstein’s in an upscale suburb of Denver there is now a gun store.  I must confess when I first saw it I had a visceral reaction.  Not in my back yard.  But I’ve accepted it.  The only thing I wish is that since we are sharing common ground, perhaps we can reach some common ground.  Can’t we all at least agree that there is no reason to have automatic weapons around here?  What good comes from them except to kill people?  Can’t we just leave them to those who fight wars?  It seems like such an easy compromise to make and one that many reasonable people are calling for.  It seems like our country and our communities would be so much safer.  It would certainly keep me from losing my appetite during warm summer evening barbeques on my deck in Colorado.

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