essays

The view from Prohibition and my thoughts on mass shootings

Prohibition | Central Denver | Bars and Clubs | Music
Prohibition Denver, where the events in question took place

In the summer of 2018, I was awaiting a friend in a Denver bar when I heard a series of “pop” noises from outside.

Numerous times I had heard noises like this and discovered they were a car’s misfiring, but something about this volley struck me as different. I stood from where I was sitting in the bar, approached the bar’s patio, and peered outside.

There, I observed a gaggle of patrons, too, sensing something different about the cavalcade of noises. Drinks in hand, they stood from their seats on the patio, and I called to them, “Come inside!” They rushed over, and after they had entered the pub, I closed and latched the door.

Now, although the noises had originally beckoned me to the patio, it was also clear they emanated from the other side of the bar: a window through which could be glimpsed one of Denver’s central streets. As the popping noises continued, I walked up to this window, and there I witnessed events that now appear blurry in my mind: on one side of the opposing sidewalk, a group of people huddling behind a police officer, poised in the firing position. At the police officer’s feet, another officer, horizontal. Across from this entire group, another man, also with gun drawn, who opposed the standing police officer. And the man opposite the police officer was shot as the officer’s gun flashed, and the man fell.

Several minutes later, as I and other patrons continued to watch, the man who had been shot was drawn into an ambulance on a gurney, paramedics hurriedly pumping at his chest. Something about the rapidity with which the paramedics did this struck me as cartoonish, and as I saw the ambulance doors close and the vehicle take off I knew the man was dead.

Not long after this, a group of police officers entered the building, asking for a show of hands among those who had witnessed the events. Witness reports needed to be filed, witnesses taken into the police station to create those reports. I and several other men near the front windows of the bar raised our hands, thereby to spend the succeeding, hazy hours in police custody.

*

Mass shootings have been an escalating issue for the entirety of my life in the US, and despite the fact that I have both witnessed the above shooting and been closely affected by another, my position on the issue has remained static.

On the one hand, I deem obvious the left’s assertion that something needs to change about the caliber of weapon that can be sold to the average individual. Although only a pistol was used in the above shooting, mass shootings are greatly delimited without automatic and military-style weapons, and there seem to me scant arguments as to why non-military personnel should own those.

Appeals Court Upholds Maryland Ban on Military-Style Weapons - WSJ

At the same time, I find much sympathy with the right’s perennial insistence that the focus should be not on guns, but on mental health: after all, isn’t it people who choose to carry out these shootings? Aren’t the weapons mere tools?

However, and as usual, where the political right loses favor for me is that they restrict this allegation to individuals, rather than focusing on culture and systems: for the right, the fixation on mental health becomes an excuse to search for and lock up “bad people,” a habit that pervades parallel responses to other issues.

For me, there are deeper issues unaddressed by this type of response. For example, why is it that the person I saw die carried a gun and was involved in a shooting in the first place? As I learned from my stint in the police station that night, this person was attempting to rob the 7/11 across the street from the bar where I sat, so where did that urge come from? Notably absent in the right’s individualism would be a discussion of forces like poverty, forces that could be lifted in order to make individuals less desperate, and therefore less predisposed to violence.

Additionally, there are issues such as capitalism writ large, which equates our worth to material possessions, which thereby makes us cagey about losing such things. In every gun owner who declaims their right to protect their property, I see a deep fear that this property does not really belong to them, for which reason they must protect it by force. In a communitarian society, such ideologies and their accompanying fears would not arise.

And there are other suspect urges, such as the habit of “othering,” by which we survey the external landscape for enemies and project onto those enemies our own shortcomings, our own shadow sides. Can one at once decry mass shootings, and support common narratives around countries like Russia or China, the US’s favorite boogeymen? Or can one decry these shootings and simultaneously fear and abhor the political “other,” the Democrat or Republican who lives on our very own shores? To me, the right’s mental health call is the correct direction, but it must be taken much farther and the onus placed on the collective, on the systemic healing we must do in order to forfeit the need for others.

*

After I raised my hand for the incoming police officers, I waited around for what seemed hours before being ferried to the station in a police car. Hanging out with the fellow men who had raised their hands, I found them regretful; one of them even approached the police officers and declared that he hadn’t actually seen much, hoping to get back to his wife and children and avoid a late night at the station. For me, there was no such conflict; I was deeply rattled by what I had seen, and it felt both a duty and a processing opportunity for me to share it with officers and investigators.

A bit of humor occurred when I finally got to the station, at which time I waited in a hallway to be called in to process my experience. Nearby, an employee from the 7/11 sat talking with a colleague on the phone, or perhaps his boss, and it was from this employee I overheard the specifics of the event: “Nah, man, he dead,” he said of the would-be robber I had watched killed by the police. “I didn’t get to lock the store before coming here; you or Johnny gon have to do that before tomorrow.” After a while, a police officer approached this man and asked him to be quiet, as witnesses were not supposed to influence other witnesses’ memory of the events; at any rate, it was too late and I had already pieced together what had happened.

When I was finally called in to share my recollection, the investigator told me I was likely in a traumatized state and would not remember what he looked like or what we discussed. For the most part, this is true: I do remember his saying this, but not much else of the conversation. That following the popping noises, I had walked out to the bar’s patio, invited people in, and closed and latched the door, in response to which the investigator celebrated my instincts. That I had then walked up to the window, where I had seen the two separate groups, the fallen police officer, and the flash of the standing officer’s gun. That I had then seen the putative robber fall, and when he was taken into the ambulance had known he was dead.

Years later, I replayed this event with a therapist, unburdening the trauma that still lingered despite my efforts to work through the event on my own. When I cried about the event, the therapist asked me the source of my tears, and I responded, “I’m sad because the man died, and he didn’t need to. I wonder why he did?”

By the time I worked through this event in therapy, I had moved from Denver to Santa Fe, New Mexico

To me, the simplicity of this sentiment–echoing that of a child–doubles as a summation of where I stand on the mass shooting issue, and where I believe the majority of us stand, deep down. At a core level, we recognize that many of those dying in these ways need not die, that something wrong is taking place, and we want to do something about it. I believe political polarization obscures facts with which we all would agree, such as that the problem is multifarious: guns are the issue, and also mental health is the issue, and in this respect culture at large is the issue. For this reason, I believe some of the processes which need to unfold are actually already underway, and that they occur at a level which is difficult to see or frame: that level by which we are all of us working together to lessen karma and to release resentment, thereby ushering in a cooler, more equanimous future.

Can we look at the other and truly say that person is my kin, or is my friend, or is me? Can we look upon the man who died and recognize that a part of ourselves, too, died in that moment? Until then, we cannot say we are past the need for such others… and the popping noises will recur.

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