As the US came to terms with another gun massacre on Saturday, new details emerged of the victims of the cinema shooting in Aurora, Colorado.
As might be expected from a crowd of eager filmgoers going to an early screening of the latest Batman film, many were young, and just starting out on their adult lives, full of hopes and ambition.
There was Alex Sullivan, a married local bartender, shot dead on his 27th birthday. "Alex was smart, funny, and above all, loved dearly by his friends and family," his family said in a statement. Just before going to the film he had posted a message on Twitter. "Oh man one hour till the movie and it's going to be the best BIRTHDAY ever." Instead he died in the terrifying attack.
There was Micayla Medek (23) a student at a local community college. "I'm a simple independent girl who's just trying to get her life together while still having fun," she wrote on her Facebook page. Jessica Ghawi (24) a talented sports blogger, was another victim. Details of her death emerged through her brother, Jordan, who wrote on his blog about the terrible scenes inside the cinema and the moment his sister was shot.
Such openness, with many victims having blogs, Facebook accounts and Twitter feeds, contrasts sharply with that of James Holmes, the secretive silent individual alleged to have burst into the theatre dressed head-to-toe in black bulletproof clothing and begun spraying the cinema with bullets. No trace of Holmes has been found on Facebook, LinkedIn, Myspace, Twitter or elsewhere on the internet. In an age of social media and openness, he was a closed book.
Police carried out a controlled explosion at the Aurora apartment where Holmes lived. A source close to the bomb disposal effort said the living room of Holmes's apartment was strewn with about 30 softball-sized improvised explosive devices. There were also bullets, gun powder and jars of flammable liquid. "This is home made. It is improvised ... There is a level of sophistication that we see here," the source said.
Several nearby apartment blocks in the area, a down-at-heel working class neighbourhood of cheap rentals and rundown housing, had been evacuated following the discovery of what appeared to be tripwired booby traps.
A block away one apartment manager spoke of her relief at having refused to rent to Holmes last April. Joanne Southard (55) said Holmes had been neat and tidy when she encountered him, but his failure to answer or return phone calls gave her concern. "Thank God I had a sixth sense, otherwise he might have tried to build that thing in one of my apartments," she said.
Holmes's references for an apartment building were good. "They said he was quiet. He was happy," Southard said. His arrest record was also a blank, save for a single speeding ticket. All in all that made him a potential model tenant. But Southard turned him down. "He seemed nice. Clean cut. But I guess there was something just a little off. He seemed unreliable. So I said no," she said.
Southard's account came as a more detailed picture began to emerge of Holmes. The 24-year-old was a doctoral student whose family came from a middle class area of San Diego. He was a brilliant science student, the son of a nurse and a software manager. He had graduated with highest honours in the spring of 2010, with a neuroscience degree from the University of California, Riverside. He then enrolled last year in a neuroscience PhD programme at the University of Colorado, Denver, after struggling to find work, but was in the process of withdrawing this year. It is not known why he was leaving. Perhaps somewhere in there lies his motivation.
Holmes, whom many have described as a shy loner, appeared to go through life leaving only the smallest of ripples. Until now. On Saturday President Barack Obama devoted his weekly radio address to the shootings. "I'm sure many of you who are parents had the same reaction I did when you first heard this news: what if it had been my daughters at the theatre, doing what young children enjoy doing every day?" he said. "Michelle and I will be fortunate enough to hug our girls a little tighter this weekend, as I'm sure you will do with your children."
Yet such family emotions disguise the fierceness of the political battle that is likely to break out over the issue of guns in American life. The New York mayor Michael Bloomberg, often touted as a possible independent candidate for president, challenged both Obama and his political rival, the Republican Mitt Romney, on the issue. "Soothing words are nice, but maybe it's time that the two people who want to be president of the United States stand up and tell us what they are going to do about it," he said on a radio programme. Many have noted that the four guns and 6 000 rounds of ammunition that Holmes was reported to have had were bought and owned legally.
But while many commentators in the media, the National Rifle Association and anti-gun campaigners have engaged in a fight, it is not expected to reach the top echelons of US public life. Romney is unlikely to speak out on gun laws in any way that Bloomberg would appreciate. Though he—like Obama—cancelled campaign appearances on Friday as news of the shooting rippled out across America, he is hardly going to take an anti-gun stance. The freedom to bear arms is a cause dear to many conservatives, especially in a party fired up by its right-wing Tea Party base. "We expect that the person responsible for this terrible crime will be quickly brought to justice," Romney said. He tip-toed around any political element of the shooting. But so too did Obama.
Even the Denver mayor, Michael Hancock, who belongs to an anti-illegal weapons group, has refused to be drawn on the subject. Very few politicians appear willing to pick up the fight that Bloomberg has offered. Obama's more than two minute-long speech contained only thoughts and prayers for the victims and generalised musings on the nature of evil. It made not a single mention of the word "gun" or promised any tightening of regulations for firearms. "We may never understand what leads anyone to terrorise their fellow human beings. Such evil is senseless—beyond reason," he said.
Sleepy slice of suburbia
As the killings, like so many previous mass shootings, provoke the latest bout of soul-searching over gun laws, the city must learn to cope with the unfolding tragedy. Aurora is a sleepy slice of suburbia, stretching off to the east of Denver across flat, former prairie. It is now a place divided into those who got lucky and those who did not. It is a city where the simple decision whether to go to a midnight showing of a film proved life-changing.
Brooke Singer was one of the lucky ones. The 22-year-old actor was going to go to the Century 16 cinema after a rehearsal for a musical. But the rehearsal was cancelled, so she stayed at home. Six friends did not. They were in the cinema next to the one that Holmes attacked. But they still saw the bullets rip through the walls, still got caught up in the bloodied, panicky mass of people fleeing Holmes's arsenal of powerful weapons. "I was supposed to be there," Singer said. "It is, like, one decision you make and that decides everything."
Marcus Weaver was not so lucky. There was no last-minute reprieve or act of good fortune for him. Instead he went to see The Dark Knight Rises, sitting with his friend Rebecca, just a few rows from the front. He was shot. Speaking while still holding his bloodied T-shirt, Weaver described a cinema packed with people eagerly awaiting the film. "It was exciting," he said. The crowd was loud, boisterous and then, about 15 to 20 minutes in, Weaver saw something "shoom" across the darkened theatre. It exploded and the shooting began. "There was a man in the corner. You could pick out his silhouette. It was like the fourth of July," he said. Weaver (41) a shop manager, described how he dived on his friend Rebecca and found that she was covered in blood. He managed to carry her for a little but then decided to run for help amid the panicking and frenzied mob trying to escape. "He was reloading but I could hear the screaming of children ... I could not get that sound out of my head today," Weaver said.
He lifted his sleeves, with his right arm in a sling, to show two round holes where pellets from Holmes's shotgun had hit him. He had not heard yet if Rebecca made it out alive.
That lack of belief was a common emotion in Aurora as it digested the idea that once more this region—site of the 1999 Columbine school massacre—would become synonymous with a mass shooting. Despite being a part of Denver's suburban sprawl, Aurora has a small town feel. Almost everyone seemed to know someone who was there. Nate Rice (21) works at Starbucks and one of his co-workers had a call about her sister, who had been at the screening. "It's insane," he said, saying that he broke down and wept several times during the day. Eventually he came to the police cordon around the cinema to lay some flowers below a sign that said simply: "Gone but not forgotten."
Tom Mauser's son, Daniel, died at the hands of the Columbine killers. Now he is a committed Christian and an advocate for gun control. Mauser came down to a prayer vigil, on a small rise above the cinema. Just 500 metres or so from where Holmes had wreaked havoc Mauser urged a group of about 300 locals to seek help or reach out to victims. "Just simply being in that theatre is trauma. Reach out to these people and tell them that you are praying for them," he said. The vigil was marked by prayers and people holding candles aloft. Many wept and held hands. At one stage a pastor urged everyone to hug each other and the entire crowd broke out in a mass of embraces.
The Reverend Acen Phillips, the head of a nearby church, told the crowd that his granddaughter had been in the cinema. She had been with seven friends, one of whom was shot in the leg. "The violence has got to stop," he said.
For many in Aurora, coming to terms with the sort of senseless tragedy that defies logic or explanation, such a reaction seemed entirely understandable. Mary Millens (43) who works at the local airport, had come to the vigil looking for comfort. But it was a struggle. "It helped a little," she said. "But no one understands it. No one has the answers."