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It's always the person, not the gun

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DETROIT -- We were coming out of a movie theatre. There were four of us. This was Thursday, just about midnight.

"Hey, we could go see the Batman premiere," one of us said.

We looked at one another. It was tempting -- to be so spontaneous, to act so young, to stay out late and be among the first to see this hot new film.

"Nah ... I can't stay up."

"Why go and fall asleep?"

"We'll see it next week."

We drove home, feeling old.

We awoke the next morning, feeling lucky.

Twelve people dead. Fifty-eight wounded. A gunman spraying bullets as the movie played on, then later allegedly telling police he was the Joker. You wonder how many people outside the Aurora, Colo., theatre that night were just like us in Michigan, only instead of saying "Nah," they said "Yeah, let's go in."

Are any of them dead today? Or carrying fragments of bullets in their bodies?

What do you say after an event like this? Do you say it's the guns? It's the violence? It's society?

It is the guns, but not just the guns. It is the violence, but not just the violence. It is society, but not just society.

It's the person.

And it's always the person.

Look, you can fill the streets with weapons; I still won't pick one up. You can show me a marathon of violent films; I still won't want to act them out. Something likely snapped inside the mind of the suspect, James Holmes -- as it likely did for an immigrant who shot and killed 13 others in Binghamton, N.Y., in 2009, or a former student at Northern Illinois University who shot and killed five others in 2008, or the Virginia Tech murderer who killed 32 people and then himself in 2007, the deadliest mass shooting in modern U.S. history.

And when a mind snaps evil, that's when easy gun availability becomes a factor; that's when violent images may fuel the imagination; that's when an alienating society may fan the murderous flames.

But we know very little about what motivated the Colorado shooter except what has been slapped against the wall by a frantic media. We only know that he purchased his guns legally, he'd never had anything worse than a speeding ticket, and on paper, anyhow, he was an unlikely killer, a doctoral student in neuroscience.

People always say, "We should have seen this coming." But if your first bad act is going to be a mass murder, I'm not sure anyone can see it coming.

And the truth is, nobody knows anybody.

I do know this: Like many of you, I grow increasingly depressed by the randomness of it all and by survivors who make you heave with sadness, like the 19-year-old woman named Salina Jordan who told a Denver news camera, "You hear the alarm go off, it says, 'Murder in the theatre!' It's just going off: 'Murder in the theatre! Murder in the theatre!' It's crazy that they got an alarm saying there was a murder in the theatre."

Crazy?

That's a good word for all of this.

On Friday, I spoke with a Denver news anchor who was covering this story, as she had covered the Columbine High School shooting 13 years ago. She said she was "trembling." She's a mother of three, and she lamented that "now we have to worry about going into a movie theatre."

But the fact is, we always had to worry about going into a movie theatre. It's a dark place with few exits and lots of people. If a deranged individual wants to shoot it up, you're in trouble.

But the same can be said of a church. A crowded mall. A concert hall. A train station. Should we never go to those? Columbine proved that high school hallways are not safe. Virginia Tech showed that even a campus is not big enough.

You always have to worry, but it's not the places you have to worry about. It's the shooters. They can strike anywhere.

While it may be true that guns don't kill people, people kill people, a person with an assault rifle can do a lot more killing than a person without one. And another one just did.

It's a cliché when this happens, but it's nonetheless true, that you never know how many moments you are given in this world, and you never know which decisions -- like going home instead of going in -- might save your life.

You only know that when you wake up in the morning, safe and with your loved ones, you should count the hour as lucky, and keep your eyes open as the day goes on.

 

Mitch Albom is a columnist for the Detroit Free Press.

 

--McClatchy Tribune Services

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 24, 2012 A10

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