In Boulder

Benjamin Kunkel

Born in Glenwood Springs and raised outside Eagle, I grew up on the western slope of Colorado, where guns were from the beginning just a part of life. Before I can remember my father shot with a .22 rifle at the packrats who would invade the cabin up Salt Creek. Sometimes he did this to amuse guests. In an early memory of my own, there’s a fatally wounded mule deer buck in the field of sagebrush below the cabin, and my father goes down there with a rifle to put the creature out of its misery. Not that guns were a large part of my family’s life, by local standards. Other boys went elk hunting with their fathers at a time of year when my family and I merely put on bright orange clothing to go hiking in the woods. All I ever did with a gun myself was shoot at some paper targets my dad had tacked to a tree, or, later, pick off ground squirrels venturing from their burrows up Eby Creek, so that the horses wouldn’t step in the holes the squirrels had dug and break a leg.

Once when our family lived in town for a few years, there was a boy who’d taunted or insulted me somehow, so I followed him home one day after school and beat him up in his yard; I believe his sister was watching. I must have been ten. Later he ambushed me from a car park and beat me up, bloodying my nose, in front of a group of his friends. (I lied and said that the whole gang had attacked me.)

When I moved to a new school district a few years later, a boy named David Silva took to pretending my last name was pronounced ‘cunthole’. I sought him out one morning in the hallways of the Eagle Valley Middle School, asked him to stop calling me that and, when he refused, punched him in the face. The gym teacher dragged us to the principal’s office. Asked what seemed to be the matter, I screamed ‘He called me cunthole!’ while David (later a friend of mine) protested unpersuasively: ‘I thought that was his name.’

If I remember correctly, David was punished for the incident and I was not. Possibly this decision reflected an accurate sense of who started things, or, just as possibly, a prevailing racism: I was a blond boy with blue eyes, and David was, as we said at the time, Mexican. (I don’t think I’d heard the word Latino.)

What is the point of this recollection? Only that, then as now, there was in the US, and especially the West, both an abundance of firearms and an abundance of masculine violence – but, unlike now, they weren’t often combined into mass shootings. Spree killings had taken place, in Austin or San Diego, and (I’ve since learned) you could order an AR-15 through the mail, but gun massacres were extraordinary events, not ordinary ones.

It is conventional to date the era of relentless mass shootings in the US to the hecatomb at Columbine High School in Denver, Colorado, on 20 April 1999. (The perpetrators, whom I won’t name, had selected Hitler’s birthday for the event.) I was on a backpacking trip with a friend from college, who grew up in Denver, when someone emailed him something like: ‘So sad to learn the terrible news from Colorado.’ We consulted the internet on a computer terminal at our hostel and were astonished at a body count of thirteen. These days, nearly two hundred mass shootings in the US later (if mass shootings are defined as entailing the deaths of three or more people in a public setting: definitions vary), it remains possible to feel aghast, but no longer to be amazed. This is especially true if you live in Colorado, as I do again, having returned a few years ago to settle in Boulder.

Since Columbine (a school named after the state flower), Colorado has suffered more spectacular gun massacres than perhaps anywhere else, and only four other states, all of them in the West, have endured more such calamities per capita. The other day, on Monday, 22 March, when my partner and I were driving down highway 93, returning from the mountains, we saw an enormous congregation of police vehicles and ambulances outside the Table Mesa shopping centre, on the south side of town. ‘I wonder if that’s a mass shooting,’ one of us said.

It later emerged that a 21-year-old man from the Denver suburb of Arvada had allegedly driven the 25 miles to Boulder, in his brother’s black Mercedes, and shot dead ten people in a King Soopers grocery store, before being shot in the leg by police, stripping down to a pair of shorts, and surrendering. On being captured, he asked for his mother.

In A Room with a View, E.M. Forster complains of ‘the ghoulish fashion in which respectable people will nibble after blood’. The era of gun massacres in the US has coincided with the rise of social media, and the respectable way to nibble after blood is now to use the dead as ideological counters in posts on Facebook and Twitter. It isn’t enough to reiterate the plain truth that that the assault weapons used in mass shootings must be banned and confiscated. Instead, every fresh atrocity must be recruited into everyone’s preferred single-factor sociological narrative.

Many liberals have lately discovered ‘white supremacy’ as the key to world history, and so in an ecstasy of confirmation bias, they observe that the shirtless Boulder shooter has pale skin and has been captured alive. But then the alleged shooter turns out to have been born in Syria, and to have an Arab name.

In a moment the ideological baton switches hands, and right-wingers declare that an Arab murderer must be an asset of Islamic State. Inconveniently, it turns out that in November 2015 the suspect adopted the French tricolour as a filter for his Facebook profile in apparent solidarity with the victims of jihadist terror in Paris, and seemed to value Islam mostly as an injunction to kindness. The appeal of a religion of peace to a paranoiac with anger management problems is not hard to imagine. A former high-school wrestling squad teammate recalled that the suspect had once reacted to losing a match by threatening ‘to kill everybody’.

The apparent absence of anything that could be called a motive might lead you to conclude that the means involved in such crimes should be regulated, as the only way to prevent them. Not so, Senator John Kennedy of Louisiana assured his colleagues the day after the shooting in Boulder: ‘We have a lot of drunk drivers in America that kill a lot of people. The answer is not to get rid of all sober drivers.’ You wouldn’t guess from the analogy that the incidence of drunk-driving fatalities has declined by half in the US since harsher penalties were imposed on offenders, and permitted levels of blood alcohol reduced – much less that aspiring drivers, unlike shooters, must undergo a probationary period and a certification of competence before gaining legal access to their deadly machinery.

The politics of the burgeoning Socialist Rifle Association mirror those of the NRA, down to the pedantic scare quotes they place around ‘assault weapons’. ‘If you believe,’ the SRA tweeted after the Boulder massacre, ‘that firearms or “assault weapons” should be restricted or banned, do you also believe that American police (with guns) will enforce those laws fairly and equally with regard to race, gender and political belief?’ The glib, posturing gun-nuts of the left betray no idea that laws against rape and murder also disfavour Black people suspected of such crimes, without it following that rape and murder should be legalised. Nor do they seem to care that the victims of gun violence in the US, mass shootings included, are disproportionately people of colour. To round off their fatuousness, they pretend that if a socialist revolution were to take place on American soil their own fumbling contribution to the affray would be decisive.

Evident in all discussion of the United States’ innumerable gun massacres is a kind of talking-points-ification of American discourse. Public commentary on these regular atrocities substitutes for argument rather than participating in it. The point is to guard your ideological niche rather than protect anyone’s life.

I don’t suppose it can matter very much to the people who loved the victims of the Boulder shootings what moved the killer to act as he did. America’s champion mass shooter remains a 64-year-old white tax adjuster who in 2017 sequestered himself in his Las Vegas hotel room with fourteen AR-15 type rifles, eight AR-10s, a Ruger American bolt-action rifle and a Smith & Wesson revolver, and – on the basis of ‘no clear or single motivating factor’, in the ultimate assessment of the FBI – killed sixty people attending that whitest of all spectacles, a country music concert, wounding 867 others. Racists sometimes want to kill a great number of people. So do Islamists. So do misogynists. So do confused lunatics. So do perfect nihilists. And so do I myself on those occasions when I am so tired of all the killing that I feel I wouldn’t mind strolling into NRA headquarters and wasting everyone on site.

It may be tedious to say the obvious thing: none of us angry men should have a semi-automatic in our hands, and it’s long past time to prohibit these weapons. But horror and pain, it turns out, can become tedious too. Tedium plus horror: the definition of hell.


  • 27 March 2021 at 3:12am
    neddy says:
    I'm surprised that the LRB agreed to print the statement, from Mr Kunkel, "And so do I myself on those occasions when I am so tired of all the killing that I wouldn't mind strolling into NRA headquarters and wasting everyone on site." So everyone on the NRA site would be sufficiently guilty of - who knows what - to deserve killing, by dint of location? Why not also the politicians on Capitol Hill? And who else, that displeases Mr Kunkel. Pathetic.

    • 27 March 2021 at 6:02am
      Joe Morison says: @ neddy
      It’s called irony.

    • 27 March 2021 at 12:41pm
      Benjamin Kunkel says: @ neddy
      I don’t usually address critics but since this is a serious misunderstanding on the part of “Neddy,” here I will: my point was that there are all sorts of kinds of hatred, including in me, and that *no one* deserves to die in a gun massacre because of such hatred; and that, because the hatred can’t be eliminated, the relevant guns must be. People with very poor reading comprehension also annoy me, but I hope no harm comes to them.

    • 28 March 2021 at 11:13am
      BrendanInCPH says: @ Benjamin Kunkel
      LRB burn!

    • 28 March 2021 at 2:08pm
      neddy says: @ Benjamin Kunkel
      There's nothing wrong with my reading comprehension. I have five university prizes to my name, so I don't intend to accept snide remarks from you. Your piece is neither ironic, nor misunderstood. Clearly I struck a nerve with my comment.

    • 28 March 2021 at 2:23pm
      neddy says: @ Joe Morison
      Read Mr Kunkel's response to my comment; the only irony in his piece is that from which guns are made. Notice his fascination with the detail of guns, from .22 rifles to Smith&Wesson revolvers. And bashings? Re-read his second and third paragraphs.

    • 28 March 2021 at 2:53pm
      Delaide says: @ neddy
      Sorry Neddy, but you are on the wrong tram with this one.

    • 28 March 2021 at 9:01pm
      Marmaduke Jinks says: @ neddy
      Five University Prizes to your name?
      And still no reading comprehension!
      Tell us the name of your alma mater - I’ll be sure to avoid it.

    • 28 March 2021 at 11:31pm
      neddy says: @ Marmaduke Jinks
      I doubt you would be accepted. An applicant must at least pass plasticine practical at kindergarten ultimately to be eligible.

    • 28 March 2021 at 11:44pm
      neddy says: @ Delaide
      No need for a weaselly apology. Try commenting or at least criticising; give me something to which I can respond.

    • 29 March 2021 at 12:20pm
      freshborn says: @ neddy
      It never fails to amaze me how people, having simply misread something or overstated their case (as happens to the best of us), choose to dig themselves in deeper and deeper when it's pointed out.

      Adding to your original slip-up - clutching your pearls along with the wrong end of the stick - you have committed the following argumentative failures.

      Firstly, you have straw-manned the poor writer in your reply to him; he never claimed that his line in the article was ironic. (That was a comment from Joe Morrison, who was indeed wrong himself to use that term. The writer was in fact being dangerously sincere in his rhetoric, in order to emphasise his point that nobody, including himself, should have a gun.)

      Secondly, the rather amusing pro hominems, in which you seem to allege that a quintuple-winner of unspecified university prizes is incapable of misreading anything. I hope this exchange has disabused you of that notion. Perhaps after your sixth or seventh victory you will be immune to human folly.

      Thirdly, you cherry-pick the weakest point against your view (Morrison's), carrying on as though the lack of irony is sufficient to confirm your initial reading of the piece. The writer quite succinctly reiterated his point to make it clear. If you had paid it due consideration, you could have simply retracted your comment, and avoided the pity of Delaide (who has done nothing to require an apology and did not make one).

      Incidentally, a tasteful dose of weaselliness is advisable sometimes. It helps maintain civility amidst all the nerve-striking.

    • 29 March 2021 at 1:01pm
      Joe Morison says: @ freshborn
      I would say that the statement was doubly ironic. Possibly Kunkel was trying to convey that he does sometimes literally have the desire to walk into the NRA headquarters and commit mass murder, and that this is why he, along with others potential mass shooters, should not be allowed to buy assault weapons; but I don’t think so. I think he was giving a comically exaggerated picture which was nothing to do with his true desires but expressed the intense frustration he and most of us feel with these firearm fundamentalists. Comically exaggerated, albeit blackly, because that’s the second level of irony: hideous though such a slaughter would be, it’s undeniable that any NRA victims would have died a deeply ironic death.

    • 29 March 2021 at 2:25pm
      neddy says: @ Joe Morison
      Let's call it a day, guys. This was fun until I read Freshborn's pompous comments. Quintuple? What, five too simple a word? Disabuse? Clutching pearls along with the wrong end of the stick? Tell me Joe and Delaide, aren't you embarrassed to be defended by this would-be-if-he-could-be Bertie Wooster? Until next time, regards to you all.

    • 30 March 2021 at 12:26pm
      Delaide says: @ neddy
      I don’t need to spell it out. You’re a smart guy, you’ll work it out yourself. My regards.

  • 30 March 2021 at 6:25pm
    sterilepromontory says:
    My takeaway was a little different. I focused on the tedium/horror part. In so many areas, we now live in a hell of denial and inaction regarding life-threatening or life-damaging events and policies... we're like children living in an alcoholic or narcissist-led household where outrages and apologies are never followed by positive change. If that's what the author meant by pairing tedium and horror, his lesson applies far more broadly than just to AR-15 control. Yesterday, for example, an expert warned Amazon employees not to organize because the sooner they do, the sooner robots will replace them. 'Well then, we'll just keep peeing in a bottle..."

    • 30 March 2021 at 7:17pm
      OldScrounger says: @ sterilepromontory
      Pee-filled balloons would be better: they can double as missiles. More disgusting and less likely to cause real injury.

  • 30 March 2021 at 7:21pm
    OldScrounger says:
    This man has some helpful insights on the subject.

  • 30 March 2021 at 8:45pm
    Mike Trotman says:
    Benjamin, I can't say I've seen anything in the West that makes it more violent than anyplace else in America. Being the fighting kind is a point of honor in the South and pretty much the local flavor in the Northeast, from Charlestown to Brooklyn. The whole damn country is crazy and inflamed with a hangman's spirit. I'd hate to see what we'd resort to if anybody ever did take the guns away. Still, this was a thoughtful piece that should help us sort at least our rages about this mess. Thank you.

  • 30 March 2021 at 10:24pm
    Pat Madsen says:
    Thanks to LRB for publishing this. Thanks to Mr. Kunkel for propounding the arguments so well, and for acknowledging his feelings, even feelings of rage. But let's make this change: next time -- and there will be next times -- let's not have a moment of silence. Let's collect around gun stores and gun shows and NRA offices and legislatures and evangelizers of toting guns screaming and scream like banshees.

  • 31 March 2021 at 1:49am
    John P brennan says:
    I was hoping to learn what those five university prizes are. Though the holder of 3 degrees (and thus equal to a tiny thermometer), I must confess to have only won a couple of extra awards from my alma mater--a marksmanship citation (during a brief stint in ROTC) and a medal for excellence in an academic major (because I was in the School of Education). I won no prizes or awards during my graduate studies, and my baccalaureate was only "cum laude" since it was earned in the days before grade inflation and I had horrible grades in French. So the fact that I enjoyed and learned from Benjamin's piece is probably more evidence to you people of its wromg-headedness!

  • 31 March 2021 at 5:20am
    larrykoen says:
    Perhaps being parochial, I date school mass murders from the Thurston High School (Oregon) shooting, May 21 1998. A teenager murdered his parents at home the previous day, then drove to the school which had just started his expulsion process. There he killed two more and injured 25 others. If this doesn't fit the definition of mass murder, it's not from lack of trying.

    • 2 April 2021 at 7:24am
      nlowhim says: @ larrykoen
      I agree. And I think the definition is up for debate. It really should be the number of people wounded and killed. The latter number just being a matter of marksmanship rather than intent.

  • 31 March 2021 at 8:54am
    ianbrowne says:
    Is the writer's point that ownership of assault weapons should be regulated. I have very little understanding of the difference between assault weapons and other types of guns, but find it strange that anyone should think there is a right to own any kind of gun. I'm sure assault weapons must be particularly dangerous, but I would think more or less all guns are dangerous.

    And I'm not sure that the focus on masculinity and the use of assault weapons is helpful. Would it be OK if ownership of assault weapons was restricted to women?

    Americans seem to have an attitude towards guns which is very difficult for me, as a European, to understand. A Romanian friend, a senior consultant dermatologist, attended a medical conference in Chicago. She was invited by one of her American colleagues to visit him at home, where, once they had had a glass of wine and chatted for a while, the colleague and his wife proudly showed off their latest additions to their gun collection. My friend was horrified. "Why" she said to me, "Would anyone, let alone a doctor, think I would be interested in seeing a selection of dangerous weapons whose main purpose is to inflict severe injury on other people?" I was unable to offer any sensible answer and could only concur with her attitude.

    • 31 March 2021 at 11:10am
      Joe Morison says: @ ianbrowne
      In one of his novels William Gibson compares American’s attachment to their guns with the British class system in that each nation views the other’s affliction with a profound incomprehension.

    • 31 March 2021 at 11:12am
      Joe Morison says: @ ianbrowne
      I apologize for that misplaced apostrophe - how I wish this site would let one edit one’s posts!

    • 31 March 2021 at 4:06pm
      Graucho says: @ ianbrowne
      Re your query about assault rifles versus other weapons.
      1) The calibre of ammunition used means that if hit, you are very unlikely to survive.
      2) The amount of ammunition they hold and the rate of fire means that a shooter will get to kill many people before they have had a chance to take cover.
      3) They are accurate and effective over a much longer range than side arms. This was demonstrated in the Las Vegas mass shooting.

    • 2 April 2021 at 7:28am
      nlowhim says: @ ianbrowne
      Restricting it to women would probably help (men could steal them or have access). Of course given our society (or most any), I’d say the chances for this are nil. Perhaps restricting it from people who have DV and other violence in their past would help.

  • 31 March 2021 at 2:09pm
    Michael L says:
    This commentary was forwarded through a listserv I am on without any context. Unfortunately this piece seems to do little more than to yell into the echo chamber. It could have done a better job of addressing the link between America's correlation between whiteness and gun ownership beliefs, but instead there seems to be a more clunky interweaving of "guns bad" and "racism bad;" the result ends with being less persuasive an more expressive in my opinion.

    That being said, I jumped to read the comments after the author claimed that you can "order an AR-15 through the mail," implying that I can go on one of the many websites used for gun sales, and USPS will simply deliver an AR-15-shaped brown paper package to my door. The reality is that anyone conducting such a business is actually in violation of federal law and should be reported to the BATFE. One can order an AR-15, bolt action hunting rifle, semi-automatic pistol, or even a .50 caliber anti-materiel rifle off the internet, but it still needs to be received by a retailer with a valid FFL, who will then run a background check per regulations and still has the right to refuse sale.

  • 31 March 2021 at 2:57pm
    Graucho says:
    In France they say "Cherchez la femme". In the U.S. it's always "Cherchez l'argent". The U.S. firearms industry turns over $28 billion p.a. As long our American cousins have the finest congress money can buy, nothing will be done to threaten that pot of gold.
    If one may be permitted a cynical observation. As long as the victims of gun violence are school kids, students, cinema goers, shoppers and random passers by in the wrong place at the wrong time, we will be subjected to the usual bullshit arguments from the gun industry lobbyists and apologists. Should it ever be the case that some outraged grieving parent did subject the above to the horrors they are perfectly happy to see others suffer then they might just pause to think again.

  • 31 March 2021 at 9:16pm
    Richard R Allen says:
    Democrats control both houses of the state legislature and the governors office. In 2019 Governor Jared Polis received around $185 million to fund all day kindergarten. It is estimated that Colorado has 70 state run psychiatric beds. The $185 million would have been a good start of a new psychiatric hospital. Besides the Boulder murderer, the Aurora Theater murderer and the Planned Parenthood murderer have psychiatric illnesses.

    In Colorado, we have a Red Flag law. Why didn't the relatives of the Boulder murderer invoke that? Why did both the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Colorado Bureau of Investigation background checks fail to prevent the Boulder murderer from buying a gun?

    Like the Marjorie Stoneman Douglas murderer, the Boulder murderer had criminal incidents in high school. Did the Jefferson County Public School System fail to press criminal charges which would have prevented him from buying a gun?

    There were many failures by public officials here that this commentary fails to mention. Most often, Progressives, Liberals, and Democrats talk about gun control to create energy for them in the voting public. They really have little idea of how to solve problems nor do they care.

    • 1 April 2021 at 1:57am
      Graucho says: @ Richard R Allen
      One factor that hardly gets a mention in these cases is substance abuse. It was certainly a feature in the cinema shootings. I would bet it was a factor in the recent Boulder case too. Given the paranoid delusions and lack of inhibition said can create, one should no more allow a drug user to possess a firearm than allow a drunk behind the wheel of a car. A hair and urine sample would be a sensible component of a background check, but for reasons previously mentioned it's not going to happen.

  • 9 April 2021 at 2:01pm
    OldScrounger says:
    Further to my ealier link, the commentator I cited is understandably disappointed with Biden's remedies, and explains why they won't work.

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