The news of the horrific shooting deaths of ten people in a Boulder, Colorado grocery store on Tuesday was not yet hours old before the speculation into the killer’s motives began. And as is often the case, observers were quick to assert that his obsessions probably mirrored their own.
Political columnists and commentators presumed that the shooter was a “white man” and a “white supremacist,” in part, because “white men are the greatest threat to our country.” Their assumptions were, they contend, rooted in statistics about mass shootings and terribly uncharitable calumnies against police, who they claimed would not have allowed the alleged murderer to leave the crime scene upright if he was of minority descent.
Those assumptions were dead wrong. The situation was far more complex than is allowed by the popular one-dimensional perspective that presumes all phenomena are rooted in American racial tensions. But just as the emerging evidence displaced this superficial theory of everything, it was replaced with another: The ubiquity of guns in the United States is the problem.
The time has come once again for another national debate about the defunct assault-weapons ban—mostly because such a thing has little chance of passage in Congress. It is, therefore, a low-stakes debate that has the added advantage of allowing political commentators to prosecute their case against white supremacy in another venue. The availability of guns in this country, the preferred mania maintains, is not an outgrowth of a constitutional right but the manifestation of American white supremacy. Everything is a nail.
And yet, when atrocities like this occur, speculation into the shooter’s motives and the exogenous conditions that might have animated him are not valueless, even if we are also grasping toward a sense of agency in a moment of profound helplessness. We do it all the time. But in recent years, we’ve lost the vocabulary to describe what increasingly seems like the profile this shooter presents: that of a deluded and disturbed individual.
The alleged killer was described by one classmate as “violent, short-tempered and paranoid.” One of his brothers told reporters that he was mentally ill and occasionally talked about his fear that he was being followed or chased. “He was always talking about (how) people were looking at him and there was no one ever where he was pointing people out,” said the shooter’s former high-school wrestling teammate. He was lonely, seemingly unable to form stable relationships with friends and with women—something about which he agonized over in public forums. He was apparently detached, dissociated, and living in a world of his own making.
Some of these traits comport with a psychological profile that is susceptible to a variety of influences, among them self-radicalization by Islamic radicalism. This shooter is Muslim, and his social-media posts are replete with references to his religion. And the lack of exogenous factors that would presumably contribute to his own radicalization is no obstacle to becoming radicalized. In some cases, like the 2019 attack on the Naval Air Station at Pensacola, Florida, external factors that give way to radicalization are present and identifiable. In others, including a 2017 vehicular attack in New York City that killed eight people, they aren’t.
But this, too, is an ultimately unsatisfying explanation for events. There is little evidence that this alleged gunman consumed racial or extremist propaganda, which most aspiring Islamist terrorists do. What’s more, as a Dutch study affirmed in 2009, Islamist radicalism’s homegrown executors are not usually mentally disturbed, materially deprived, or estranged from their communities. “They are often, in fact, quite well integrated and indistinguishable from the general population,” the study determined.
As more evidence emerges, it seems unlikely that this shooter will provide us with confirmation that our ideological enemies can be blamed for this event. We’ve been similarly robbed of a satisfying public-policy solution that would have prevented this event. Save for the miraculous rapture of the millions of semi-automatic weapons on the streets, the legal fail-safes designed to interdict events like these seem to have misfired.
As the Washington Post reported, the city of Boulder had passed its own assault weapons ban in 2018, but a court blocked that ban and this attack followed just ten days later. The implicit suggestion is that the judge’s ruling, in this case, contributed to the tragedy that followed. But the court’s ruling, which follows similar decisions in Washington and Pennsylvania, maintained that the city’s gun ban violated the state’s preemption law. In other words, the city could not invalidate the state’s overarching gun laws. Moreover, it’s not entirely clear that the Ruger AR-556 pistol used in this attack would have even been covered by the city’s ban. Finally, claims about Colorado’s “lack of rules on assault weapons and large-capacity magazines at the state level” notwithstanding, the state does have an enforceable magazine capacity limit on the books.
And Colorado is no stranger to mass gun violence, just as it is occasionally rocked by failed efforts to rein in the state’s gun culture. Following the 2012 massacre of moviegoers at an Aurora, Colorado theater, the state’s Democrat-led legislature tried and failed to pass a series of strict gun-control measures. That effort alone resulted in two state legislators’ recall election just five months later, including the state Senate president. The notion that gun control is a popular ideal to which politicians are just insufficiently committed is pure fancy.
As Stephen Gutowski, the Washington Free Beacon’s encyclopedic firearms reporter, noted, the revelation from the shooter’s relatives that he suffered from “fairly severe mental problems” should have triggered the state of Colorado’s “red flag law.” Those ordinances bar the sale of firearms to the unstable if and when a close relative, household member, or law-enforcement officer seeks from a court a temporary petition against those sales to flagged individuals. But, from what we know so far, no such petition was sought.
Gutowski also wondered why, if this person was such an obvious danger to himself and others, his family did not seek his involuntary commitment. But since the Supreme Court’s 1975 decision in O’Connor v. Donaldson, which was designed to curb abuses and ensure the civil liberties of the detained, institutionalization became a more onerous ordeal. The state of Colorado made efforts to remedy this potentially hazardous situation in 2018, but only an officer of the law, a licensed medical professional, or clinical social worker can invoke involuntary civil commitment. As the Denver Post reported, “Some parents of schizophrenic and severely bipolar adult children maintain that it is too difficult to get long-term involuntary commitment for their loved ones.”
These are all bedeviling and complex problems that do not lend themselves to table-pounding, moral preening, and self-righteous condemnations of your political enemies as the sole obstacle to a better world. And yet, the pounding, preening, and self-righteousness flows unabated. We have closed down the thoughtful venues in which these problems could be discussed in good faith and replaced them with echo chambers. But of all the problems that contribute to our current predicament, that might be the easiest one to address.