“It doesn’t define us”: Boulder community reflects one year after King Soopers shooting

by Shelly Bradbury | Original story appeared in denverpost.com

Almost a year ago, Mark Naughton watched from his apartment window as a man with a gun opened fire in the parking lot of the King Soopers grocery store across the street.

In the days that followed, Naughton watched as a colorful streetside memorial blossomed around the fenced-off Boulder grocery store. He listened to visitors pause at the piles of stuffed animals, flowers, candles and signs. Some wept. Some screamed.

He watched from his window as the mourners became less frequent, and finally as the memorial was taken down and stored away. He watched the shattered building go under construction for months.

And then the store reopened.

“Just going in there and walking through the hallways, it brought back memories of that day,” Naughton said. “…It was tough the first time, but it’s gotten better.”

In the year since a gunman attacked the King Soopers store on Table Mesa Drive in south Boulder, killing 10 people on March 22, 2021, the trauma of the shooting rippled out from the store and engulfed the entire Boulder community, a wave that spread even as the attack faded into the steady drumbeat of mass violence in America.

Those who were there felt the full brunt of the terror, but even residents who just heard about the attack on the news felt increased anxiety and fear — that glance for the exits while you fill your cart — despite the fact that mass shootings in public places are exceedingly uncommon events that the vast majority of Americans will never personally experience.

“One of the biggest things I had to wrap my brain around is that it’s not something that is ever really going to disappear from me,” survivor Louis Saxton said. “It’s not ever going to be something I can just brush off, where if someone brings it up I won’t feel a wave of emotions.”

Saxton, now a sophomore at the University of Colorado Boulder, was walking out of King Soopers when the gunman attacked; he heard shots and ran to his car. For weeks afterward, he did not feel safe.

“I was still in fight-or-flight mode,” he said. “I had really bad nightmares, and at random times of day I would see something and it would trigger something and I’d lose it.”

Immediately after the mass shooting, he returned to the store and played cello for 10 days at the streetside memorial, one day for each person killed. Playing offered a rare moment of “being OK” during a time when he was otherwise not dealing with his emotions, he said.

“I wanted a period of mourning and then I wanted anger,” he said. “I wanted people to be as angry as I was that something like this could even happen.”

Over time, and through the help of a therapist, Saxton’s healing, and learning not to let the shooting dominate his thoughts.

“I figured out how to not let it control my life,” he said, adding he is not interested in following the criminal case against the shooting suspect, which has stalled after he was ruled mentally incompetent to stand trial and ordered to undergo mental health treatment.

The lives lost

One year ago Tuesday, a gunman opened fire at a King Soopers grocery store in Boulder, killing 10 people, including employees, shoppers and a responding police officer.
Denny Stong, 20
Neven Stanisic, 23
Rikki Olds, 25
Tralona Bartkowiak, 49
Teri Leiker, 51
Officer Eric Talley, 51
Suzanne Fountain, 59
Kevin Mahoney, 61
Lynn Murray, 62
Jody Waters, 65

While the shooting scarred the Boulder community and residents think of it often, it’s not the city’s defining characteristic, Mayor Aaron Brockett said.

“This will be a part of our community’s identity for a long time,” he said. “But… it doesn’t define us.”

Mass shootings broadly reduce a community’s well-being for weeks to months after the attack, said Aparna Soni, an assistant professor at American University in Washington, D.C.

She co-published research in 2020 that showed significant decreases in emotional well-being for adults in the wake of a local mass shooting. After such events, people feel less safe, less secure and more depressed, the study found.

“The societal cost of mass shootings is much larger than researchers have previously estimated,” she said. “…The entire community experiences emotional distress after mass shootings — it’s not just the survivors and their family.”

Soni’s study showed parents were most affected by the trauma — likely because they worry about their children — and that the effects lasted for about five weeks after the attack, though for deadlier shootings where at least 10 victims were killed, the downturn in community well-being stretched for nearly a year. The study also found increases in smoking after a mass shooting, a habit linked to stress.

“That grocery store is such a staple in that community… it’s not just like a regular grocery store,” said Karen Schweihs, manager of the BoulderStrong Resource Center. “It was really a community meeting place, so that made it hurt a little more for community members.”

The resource center, which opened after the attack, offers mental health services to anyone impacted by the shooting. The center sees an average 200 visits each month, Schweihs said, with spikes during triggering events, like the holidays or the approaching one-year anniversary of the attack.

“We know this doesn’t just go away, for family members who lost a loved one, for survivors, for community members,” she said. “It changes people. It can never be forgotten.”

Mass shootings are exceedingly rare

Still, public mass shootings are just a tiny sliver of the nation’s gun violence and rarely happen, though intense media coverage and the nature of the attacks — often unprovoked and in public places — still stoke widespread fear.

Homicides represent just 0.2% of all crimes known to law enforcement — and mass shootings comprise 0.2% of those crimes, according to data analyzed by Jaclyn Schildkraut, a professor at the State University of New York at Oswego, who has conducted extensive research on mass shootings. And the majority of those mass shootings take place in homes or other venues, outside the public eye.

But much of the public has little idea that these incidents are exceedingly rare; one in four Americans think mass shootings are the leading cause of gun-related deaths, according to one 2019 study.

The reality is that 24,292 Americans in 2020 died by suicide using a firearm. Mass public killings — in which four or more people were killed — account for 50 deaths nationwide in an average year, according to a database created by the Associated Press, USA Today and Northeastern University. Roughly one-quarter of mass killings don’t involve guns.

Overall, the frequency of mass shootings hasn’t changed much over the past several decades, said James Alan Fox, a Northeastern University professor who helps run the database. Public mass shootings in the U.S. have gone up slightly, according to Fox’s research — from around three per year in the 1970s and ’80s to almost six a year in the 2000s — but the population has also grown significantly.

More than any statistical leaps, Fox said, it’s the media attention that has changed. CNN was still in its infancy in 1989, for instance, when a gunman killed five schoolchildren and injured 32 others at an elementary school in Stockton, California. Now every mass casualty event is covered live for hours, if not days.

“Seeing is believing,” Fox said. “People see these things on their TV screens and it makes it feel like there’s this epidemic.”

Frank DeAngelis, the former Columbine High School principal, remembers TV crews camping out in Clement Park next to the school for weeks after the horrific 1999 shooting. Carpentry crews constructed platforms so shows could host on-site, and Katie Couric anchored NBC’s “Today” show the next morning from outside the school.

“It really got to the point where there was anger by the students and parents and teachers were under a microscope,” DeAngelis said. “Every move we made, there were cameras.”

Columbine set the precedent for modern-day news coverage of mass shootings, spawning study after study analyzing the media’s role in these deadly events. In the mass shootings that have followed, researchers found the life-cycle for sustained coverage stayed mostly static, but it never captured the nation’s attention for as long as that Jefferson County massacre did.

After 10 of the deadliest mass shootings since Columbine, The New York Times featured stories on the front page for roughly six days, according to a 2018 story in The Atlantic. A 2017 Media Matters study on the Las Vegas massacre found TV coverage of the shooting dropped dramatically following a week of heavy reporting.

Even the 2012 mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in which 20 children and six educators were killed didn’t generate as much attention as Columbine, Schildkraut found in a 2014 study.

“Our nation has become incredibly desensitized to mass violence,” Schildkraut said. “Instead of ‘not one more,’ we say, ‘add another to the list.’”

The Boulder shooting was reported on the front page of The New York Times the day after the killings, and the newspaper published at least 23 stories about the attack in the first seven days, The Denver Post found. It published none about the shooting the next week, between March 29 and April 5, 2021.

CNN transcripts show the mass shooting was mentioned on air every hour for at least the first 24 hours and heavy coverage continued for about five days until it abruptly dropped off.

Saxton, the cello player, was overwhelmed with media requests for interviews immediately after the attack. At the time, he felt the national media’s attention and approach was “stupid and horrible,” but his feelings have shifted with time, he said.

“It’s not fun, but I think it’s really important, because I think gun control laws are something so embarrassingly horrendous in the United States, and I think it needs national coverage; something like this exposes every flaw,” he said.

Brockett, Boulder’s mayor, said he didn’t know how long the wider world paid attention to his city, but for him and his constituents, “certainly attention has not faded yet.”

“Is this a mistake?”

For weeks before the King Soopers shooting, the text alert system that Boulder police used to inform officers about critical incidents had been glitching.

So when Chief Maris Herold saw the report about an active shooter at King Soopers, she thought it was a mistake. She called her deputy chief to see what was really going on.

“I said, ‘What do we have at King Soopers? Is this a mistake?’” she said. “And I could hear the shots being fired in the background.”

From that moment on, Herold raced to respond to the tragedy, which included the death of veteran Boulder police Officer Eric Talley.

For about two weeks, doing Herold’s job meant she never had a moment to pause, or reflect, or breathe. Then one day she found herself in her office and discovered the room was packed with boxes of cards from well-wishers and mourners across the world.

Herold finally sat down. She started reading the cards.

“It was the first opportunity I had, a couple of hours, to just kind of start coming down after the adrenaline of being involved with that incident for days, literally days,” she said. “I do remember that, and I just felt a huge adrenaline dump as I started reading the cards. I was just overwhelmed by people’s kindness. It held me together, and I think it holds the department together.”

Boulder police didn’t see a marked increase in calls from residents about safety concerns after the shooting, Herold said, though some private businesses bolstered their own security measures.

“I can’t say I saw people be more fearful,” she said. “I think it tied us together.”

She recently walked back through the reopened King Soopers store, going with a small group of people involved in the investigation. The renovation was beautiful, but Herold still remembered where each of the victims fell, the horror of the place.

Before the attack, Herold did her personal grocery shopping at the Table Mesa King Soopers.

She hasn’t yet returned there for that. But she imagines she will, when the time is right.

“Trauma is not a competition”

That “right time” varies from person to person, those who have lived through previous mass shootings say.

“We can all experience the same event and deal with it differently,” DeAngelis said.

Since the Columbine shooting, the former educator has become a national speaker on these tragedies, counseling communities as they go through anger, grief and resilience. DeAngelis has been working with Boulder leaders, King Soopers employees and victims, people who have joined the solemn club of which nobody wants to be a part.

“You have to do what’s best for your community,” DeAngelis tells leaders as they rebuild. “There’s not a one-size-fits-all approach.”

It took Heather Martin six or seven years after the Columbine shooting to call herself a survivor. She didn’t have physical wounds like some of her classmates, so she minimized her own trauma. It was a coping mechanism, Martin said, that “can lead to some very dangerous places.”

“Trauma is not a competition,” she said.

Everything changed in Martin’s life at the 10-year mark when she reunited with other former Columbine students. It was then that she found company in people who understood what she was going through.

She soon went back to school and founded the The Rebels Project with other Columbine survivors, an organization that provides support and education for survivors of mass tragedy events.

“Don’t be ashamed that you’re still struggling,” Martin said. “It does get better. It truly does.”