The truest lesson of Columbine returned in full force to Colorado, and it’s simply this: Columbine will never go away.
And then there’s the corollary. It never goes away, in part, because school shootings never go away.
And the further corollary, of course, is that school shootings never go away because gun violence never goes away, and, in America, we have decided that gun violence is just the price we have to pay for, uh, freedom — the exact opposite lesson taken, by the way, in Second-Amendment-free New Zealand.
We’re stuck in a spiral. And now some Columbine survivors, 20 years after the massacre, have school-age children of their own to whom they have had to explain why school was out for the day, why an armed Florida teenager kept nearly half a million students home, why school is not always a safe place for a child to be.
Columbine was not our fault. It survives in a certain kind of disturbed teen mythology, for any number of reasons. For many school shooters, from Sandy Hook to Virginia Tech, Columbine became an obsession. The Colorado Sun’s John Ingold wrote an all-too-prescient piece the other day about how the media were responsible, in large part, for the mythology, and how the mainstream media no longer have any control of the narrative.
And so, Columbine is Colorado’s curse. But we are not innocent. We are not at all innocent.
We can’t be innocent if it’s legal for a disturbed 18-year-old woman to fly here from Florida, with what authorities call an “infatuation” with all things Columbine, and head to a gun store near the school where, after passing a background check, she can leave with a pump-action shotgun and ammunition in hand.
The store owner, Josh Rayburn, had no clue Sol Pais could be dangerous to herself or others. But how could he if she had just passed a background check? That was all the information he had and all, he said, he needed. We don’t have a waiting-period law here in Colorado. We just passed a red-flag law, which, we’re promised by the gun-rights crowd, will result in recalls of swing-district Democrats who were brave enough to vote for it.
But the red-flag law — which can temporarily remove guns from people if a judge rules they are a danger to themselves or others — wouldn’t have helped. According to what authorities tell us, the Miami FBI notified the Denver office about Pais’ threat to pull a Columbine — as it’s called — the day after she bought the gun.
You think a seven-day waiting period might have helped? How about a three-day?
I’m guessing that someone in the state legislature will be rethinking that question. The answer, to me at least, is pretty obvious. But that’s not where the story ends.
You see, despite what you may have heard, despite what the Colorado Gun Broker owner and authorities have said, the gun purchase apparently was not legal. Pais, who killed herself at the base of Mt. Evans with the shotgun she purchased, should not have had the gun. Colorado Public Radio’s Ben Markus broke the story, saying that a review of federal law suggested that the purchase may not have been legal, that in selling a gun to an out-of-state resident the seller must follow laws of the state where the gun shop is located as well as of the state where the buyer resides.
In Florida, where Pais resided, there is a three-day waiting period for a long gun. And in Florida, you must be at least 21 years old to purchase a long gun.
I had a hard time running this down, with experts offering different opinions. I was unable to reach Rayburn, the gun store owner. I finally reached the Independence Institute’s Dave Kopel, a gun-rights advocate and Second Amendment expert. Here’s what Kopel messaged to me:
“Yes, that has been federal law since 1968, and revised in 1986. Non-residents can buy a long gun out of state, but in compliance with the laws of both states. Besides the 3-day wait, Fla. doesn’t allow under-21s to buy long guns. As has been mandated by Congress, ATF publishes a book of every state’s gun laws, for firearms dealers to use. Dealers who choose to sell to non-residents are responsible for knowing and complying with all of the buyer’s home state laws.”
It was the gun dealer’s responsibility to know the law in Florida. According to Kopel, the gun dealer has a book — or should — in which it’s all listed. If Pais, who had apparently called the store to see if she could purchase a long gun there, wasn’t sold the shotgun, she might be alive today and the gun scare that Colorado endured would never have happened.
The Columbine curse would still be the Columbine curse. It would still be the high school shooting that somehow still stands in for all school shootings, a suburban high school, as I wrote on the 10th anniversary, “different from most schools where shootings occurred, more like the high school of popular imagining, the high school of castes and jocks and nerds, where a shooting would spawn a popular-culture-gone-wrong mythology around the killers, even though much of what we thought we knew about them was wrong.”
And Colorado would still be in need of other gun laws, particularly a waiting-period law, which has been shown in some studies to reduce both homicides and suicides in the states that have the laws. No curse stops that from happening here. Only a lack of will.