69. Aurora

July 20, 2012

Century 16 Theater — Aurora, Colorado

There was a young, white man in a black hat, sitting in the theater’s front row. He was there alone, sitting next to strangers for a midnight screening of the brand-new Batman movie. It was a full house.

At 12:20am, just as the previews were finishing and the feature was about to start, he got a phone call on his cell — or pretended to, anyway. He got up, and left through the darkened theater’s side exit; nobody noticed him sliding a small, plastic clip under the door, to keep it from locking shut behind him.

Three miles across Aurora, a phone at the University of Colorado Hospital started ringing: not an emergency line, but the one that could connect callers to the hospital’s staff. “How can I help you?” the administrator answered.

A few seconds of staticky silence, then the call ended.

The man in the black hat put away his phone, and went to his car, in the parking lot. He got in, and put a sun-shade under the windshield, to block anyone from seeing him while he changed. He had everything he needed, waiting in the back seat.

* * *

He was a failed brain researcher. He had been excited about his career path in his application letter the year before, writing to the neuroscience program at the University of Colorado that, for as long as he could remember, he had been “fascinated by the complexities of long lost thought seemingly arising out of nowhere and into a stream of awareness.” The vastness of existence itself fascinated him. “This is why I have chosen to study the primary source of all things, our own minds.”

But that was before he came to Colorado — and as soon as the program actually got started, he fell apart. “Lack of interest, duties too social,” he had put on his unemployment application. “Attempted to change demeanor to act more socially and be more articulate. However, was unable to change shy/reserved personality.”

That was closer to the real reason he had chosen to study the mind in the first place, the reason he wrote about in his private notebook over the last few months: that he was obsessed with the infinite complexity of the world because it terrified him.

He was afraid, and nothing made the fear worse than having to interact with other humans. Socializing. He wrote in his journal that he was in the neuroscience field specifically to try and figure out just what was wrong with his own mind; maybe even fix it. But it wasn’t working.

* * *

Six months before, he had complained to a colleague over instant message: “Science appears to have shifted from guys working alone in a dark room to some huge interactome,” he wrote, using the term that encompasses all of the frenzied molecular activity that occurs inside a living cell.

His chat partner recommended he go to the campus Student Wellness Center — and he did just that, in March. He told the therapist there about the thoughts he’d been having, things that had been going through his mind for years: at first, these were fantasies “not of actually killing people, rather of wishing them dead to escape from awkward social situations,” as her colleague (another doctor who participated in that session) put it, adding that “he wasn’t talking about a vengeful hatred…He was talking about an aversion to mankind. Being around much of mankind was uncomfortable to him and it wasn’t very rewarding to him so he wanted to avoid it.”

At some point over the years, the relief these passive fantasies gave him didn’t cut it anymore, and he started thinking about reducing humanity himself. Now, as he told his therapist in their first visit, he had the urge to “kill as many people as possible.”

It didn’t sound like a credible threat to the doctor, or really even like a threat at all; he didn’t say how he’d do it, or who he would harm. There was nothing concrete. Besides, the doctor wanted him to be honest, and she wanted his trust.

She prescribed him sertraline — an SSRI, also sold under the trade name Zoloft. She started him at 50mg, and asked him to come back after it took effect.

A few days later, he wrote in his journal about what he said was the impact the medication had on his thoughts: “Anxiety and fear disappears. No more fear, no more fear of failure. Fear of failure drove determination to improve, better and succeed in life. No fear of consequences.”

He wrote to his chat partner again. He said he wanted to kill someone “when his life was over.” His friend said that was stupid.

FRIEND: What would taking a life give you?

SCIENTIST: Human capital. Some people may make 1 million dollars, others 100,000. But life is priceless. You take away life and your human capital is limitless.

FRIEND: What would you do with the human capital?

SCIENTIST: Have a more meaningful life.

He went back to the campus therapist a few days later. He didn’t tell her about his “human capital” concept, but he said the urges weren’t going away.

She upped the dosage. A few weeks later, still nothing. She upped it again.

In her notes, she wrote that she was concerned her patient had a social phobia — Asperger’s, possibly, but her primary theory was schizoid personality disorder. One thing he’d said really stuck out, and supported that theory: “I don’t have relationships with people; they have relationships with me.” And another, about his idea of extinguishing the human race: “I like thinking about it.”

He seemed to get worse as the weeks went by. He came to sessions, but was disinterested. The therapist urged him to take an anti-psychotic (a step further than the Zoloft), but he refused. He seemed angrier, and more distant.

In May, he told her he had failed his final exams; he hadn’t even bothered studying for them. Instead, he’d spent weeks playing video games, and the night before the exams, chose instead to “read up on Unabomber Ted Kaczynski.”

His Zoloft prescription had run out around then. The therapist didn’t prescribe him any more. Going off the meds, her patient didn’t get any better.

He started buying things online — the supplies he’d load up in his car before he headed out to the movies. Along with some he would leave behind at his apartment, carefully arranged.

In June, he failed his oral exams, which spelled the end of his enrollment at the University of Colorado. They deactivated his key card, and he wasn’t allowed on campus anymore. That didn’t matter much by then; he had told his therapist in one of their last sessions that, “He didn’t think he would make a mark on the world with science, [but] he could blow people up and become famous.”

* * *

He sent his secret notebook to his therapist in the mail, just before heading to the movie theater for his “mission.” He had filled its pages over the same period of time as his visits with her, and it confirmed how he had been actively trying to resist her efforts at treating him: “Prevent building false sense of rapport … deflect incriminating questions … can’t tell the mind rapists plan…. If plan is disturbed both ‘normal’ life and ideal enactment on hatred [are] foiled.”

The notebook also contained his more evolved attempt to convey the “human capital” theory: scribbled pages of what looked like scientific equations, but incorporating stick figures, and the variables LIFE and DEATH. The infinity symbol, and then a zero — over and over and over. He was obsessed with establishing a value of human life, just to quantify the transaction of a murder — or his own final end. The cost of an exit from his existential crisis.

Later in the notebook, there was a section entitled “Self Diagnosis of broken mind,” where he meticulously cataloged everything he suspected was wrong with himself — in essence, offering his therapist the answers she had been seeking about him. The list included everything from “restless leg syndrome” and “Asperger syndrome/Autism” to the more prominent entries:

Dysphoric mania

Generalized anxiety disorder / social anxiety disorder OCD / PTSD (chronic)

Schizophrenia

Body dysmorphic disorder

Borderline, narcissistic, anxious, avoidant and obsessive compulsive personality disorder

Psychosis

He listed his symptoms next. One was “Obsession to kill,” and he explained how it first reared its head: “I was a kid. With age became more …started [with] the entire world, with nuclear bombs. Then shifted to biological agent that destroys the mind. Most recently serial murder [in] national forests…”

After his doctor prescribed the Zoloft, he again described how it had removed his fear of consequences, and why as a result, his “primary drive” was shifting, from “fear of failure” to something else, something further down inside: “Hatred of mankind. Intense aversion of people, cause unknown. Began long ago, suppressed by greater fear of others. No more fear, hatred unchecked.”

He drew closer to “the mission,” and how he chose it. First, the method: biological warfare was the most effective way to do what he wanted, but it was too hard. He only had a few grand in the bank, and he was in a hurry. Meanwhile, bombs were too “regulated” and “suspicious” (the stuff he left back at his apartment was more of an afterthought. It would add a few more to the tally, if he was lucky.)

He also took modus operandi into account. Serial murder, initially up for consideration, he now saw as too risk-prone, and too “personal.” The better approach was “Mass murder/spree,” as it promised “maximum casualties, easily performed w/ firearms although primitive in nature.”

It was to be a mass shooting, then. That was within his reach.

Finally, the “venue”; he considered striking an airport, but that was no good. “Too much of a terrorist history. Terrorism isn’t the message. The message is, there is no message. The [cause was] my state of mind for the past 15 years.”

A movie theater would be better: the Cinemark 16 just down the street. It was big, and “isolated.” Perfect.

As for victims, they’d be random. Victims of “fate,” he wrote — somehow, not victims of what he was about to do, willfully.

He bought the AR-15 on the same day he failed his oral exams. “Attempted to see if can pass exams as myself and not by fear,” he wrote in the notebook. “Fail. I was fear incarnate.” All he had left was his plan:

Finally, the last escape, mass murder at the movies. 1st obsession onset >10 years ago. So anyways, that’s my mind. It is broken. I tried to fix it. I made it my sole conviction but using something that’s broken to fix itself proved insurmountable. Neuroscience seemed like the way to go but it didn’t pan out. In order to rehabilitate the broken mind my soul must be eviscerated. I could not sacrifice my soul to have a “normal” mind. Despite my biological shortcomings I have fought and fought. Always defending against predetermination and the fallibility of man. There is one more battle to fight with life. To face death, embrace the longstanding hatred of mankind and overcome all fear in certain death.

* * *

In the darkened theater, few noticed him come back in. Their first indication that something was amiss was the tear gas canister, sailing across the theater with a blooming cloud tracing its arc. The superhero film’s projected scenes glowed through the clouds of gas filling the air, and then, there was gunfire. In the ensuing chaos, some in the audience looked up and saw it: a figure coming, marching through the haze, dressed in black body armor and a gas mask, firing an AR-15. The American monster.

For a few in the theater, it was a like a nightmare returning: they had witnessed the monster once 13 years before, when they were students at Columbine High School.

He had extra AR-15 magazines strapped all over his body, and the one in his gun was a gigantic “double drum” — 100 rounds. But it jammed. For some reason, he seemed to lose interest after that. The cops arrived at the scene in less than four minutes, and he was already out in the parking lot: just standing there, vacant, in his black suit of armor, silently running his calculations.

Harborside Events Center — Fort Myers, Florida

President Obama was just getting ready for an appearance as part of his re-election campaign, when his counter-terrorism adviser came into the room, and informed him of what had happened in Colorado during the night. 2012 was an election year, but such a tragedy required a president to respond — not a candidate. “If there’ s anything to take away from this tragedy, it’s the reminder that life is very fragile,” the president said in his remarks that night. “Our time here is limited, and it is precious. And what matters at the end of the day is not the small things. It’s not the trivial things, which so often consume us and our daily lives. Ultimately, it’s how we choose to treat one another and how we love one another.”

He said that it was not a day for politics, but prayer. His opponent agreed. Their contest for the Oval Office, ultimately, would focus more on the still-struggling economy, and the Affordable Care Act, and the country’s foreign policy.

President Obama would be reelected that year, and the Aurora shooting, and the policy questions it might have garnered, were never a significant factor in the bid for the White House.

Congress was another story. In the House, some even suggested bringing back Clinton’s Assault Weapons Ban that had expired in 2004 — sparking debate over whether it would have made any difference in the Aurora case anyway. A congressional study was called to settle just that issue, applying the old law to the gunman’s Smith & Wesson-made AR-15; the researchers saw that the ban’s first layer “specifically named the Colt AR-15 as prohibited, but it did not prohibit any Smith & Wesson firearm specifically.” So it wouldn’t have made any difference. And the rifle was sold with a pistol grip, and a detachable magazine — “arguably the two hallmarks of a Semiautomatic Assault Weapon” — but not any of the other banned features. So if the ban hadn’t expired, Aurora still would have happened. The drum-magazine he used would have to have been manufactured before 1994; that was the only difference.

* * *

The morning after the shooting, a radio show interviewed a congressman from the district of Tyler, Texas — the man who had eulogized Mark Wilson on the House floor, and who had and fought so hard to pass the PLCAA, to shield the gun industry. He reminded the listeners of the courthouse shooting, and Luby’s, and of Suzanna Gratia’s story. “With all those people in the theater,” he said of the Aurora victims, “was there nobody that was carrying? That could have stopped this guy more quickly?”

There was significant backlash to his comments. The representative complained that his words were being taken out of context, and clarified that he never meant them as an explanation for what happened: “This tragedy is not only heartbreaking — it is incomprehensible. We should unite together as compassionate Americans to comfort those who are mourning.”

Meanwhile, surviving victims of the attack were racking up medical bills, and reviewing their legal options. They would find the PLCAA to be a significant obstacle to suing Smith & Wesson, and the online dealer from whom the gunman had purchased the copious ammunition he brought to the theater. But they would sue, regardless.

* * *

One week after the attack in Aurora, the Washington Post published a joint op-ed, entitled “We won’t know the cause of gun violence until we look for it.” It was co-written by James Dickey (for whom the CDC-blocking “Dickey Amendment” was named) and Mark Rosenberg, the former director of the CDC’s National Center for Injury Prevention and Control — the very target of the 1996 budget amendment that blocked gun research. “We were on opposite sides of the heated battle 16 years ago,” the two wrote, “but we are in strong agreement now that scientific research should be conducted into preventing firearm injuries and that ways to prevent firearm deaths can be found without encroaching on the rights of legitimate gun owners.” Gun violence like what happened in Aurora was not “senseless” they wrote, but rather, awaiting scientific research that could potentially make sense of it:

The same evidence-based approach that is saving millions of lives from motor-vehicle crashes, as well as from smoking, cancer and HIV/AIDS, can help reduce the toll of deaths and injuries from gun violence.

Most politicians fear talking about guns almost as much as they would being confronted by one, but these fears are senseless. We must learn what we can do to save lives. It is like the answer to the question ‘When is the best time to plant a tree?’ The best time to start was 20 years ago; the second-best time is now.

But the blocking language in the annual budget stayed right where it was. And so, despite what happened in Aurora, the CDC would continue to stay far away from guns.