Wild Card

The Motivation Behind the Colorado Killings Is Murky, but the Horror Is Crystal Clear

There are few if any explanations of the character or motivations of the man who murdered 12 people in a Colorado movie theater, but the discussion should be about whether the NRA is also culpable, writes Michael Daly.

07.21.12 8:45 AM ET

Two months before he was charged with killing 12 people and wounding 59 others at a midnight opening of The Dark Knight Rises, James Eagen Holmes was scheduled to conduct a seminar on how the tiniest bits of genetic material can signal psychiatric and neurological disorders.

Whether or not he actually delivered his talk on micro RNA biomarkers is not yet clear, and he has since dropped out of the graduate neuroscience program at the University of Colorado Medical School in Denver.

But what soon became murderously clear is that none of our present societal markers are able to prevent a maniac from obtaining an arsenal and coldly plotting a massacre.

Holmes had a sterling academic record all the way back to high school and no criminal record more serious than a single speeding ticket. He does not seem to have had any psychiatric hospitalizations or any history of violence. He preferred Guitar Hero to guns as a teen.

“James was very nice and quiet,” his family’s next-door neighbor in San Diego, Tom Mai, told The Denver Post.

Before dropping out of graduate school in June, 24-year-old Holmes made the same benign impression on the brilliant professors and doctoral candidates who study the brain and behavior at the school’s neuroscience center. The professor who ran his course on the biological basis of psychiatric and neurological disorders is a prominent member of the medical school’s department of psychiatry. The two student-led seminars scheduled immediately after Holmes’s seminar were on psychosis and paranoid delusions.

Amidst all this neuroscience, nobody seems to have imagined that Holmes might be plotting an added, extracurricular seminar in psychiatric disturbance for the whole world to behold. Part of the lesson is that not even the keenest students of the mind can predict that a colleague would soon be charged with dressing up in body armor and allegedly perpetrating one of the worst mass shootings in American history just 15 miles away from the Columbine Massacre of 1999.

Maybe part of this sickest of jokes is that Holmes was studying the literature on the significance of micro bits of RNA as indicators of brain disorders, and nobody suspected a thing as he did what by NRA indicators is only normal—buying an AR-15 rifle and two Glock automatic pistols and a Remington shotgun at two local gun stores. He also purchased some 6,000 rounds of ammunition and full body armor including leggings, neck and groin protectors.

The gunman in Theatre 9 at Century 16 was not some nut who went postal. He was a maniac who went cinematic, working out all the details, right down to his all-black costume. The body armor would indicate an intention to do battle with the police if necessary and escape the scene if possible. But Holmes is said to have done neither, giving up without resistance when police came upon him by his white Hyundai parked behind the theater.

And Holmes seemed to have had no intention of returning to his apartment. The young man who had described himself as “quiet and easygoing” and who had seemed to be exactly that departed on Thursday night leaving music blaring so loudly that a fellow tenant came up and banged on his door, calling for him to turn it down. The door seemed to be unlocked, but instinct countermanded impulse and she did not open it and trigger what seems to have been a final twist, using the music as an apparent lure to coax a complaining neighbor or a responding cop into a booby-trapped apartment.

Had she done so, the result might have been just the kind of thing the fictional Joker might have done after proclaiming himself just a quiet and easygoing guy. The guns in the theater and the booby traps at the apartment all seemed to be saying, a là the Joker, “Wait’ll they get a load of me!”

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But not even the Joker would gun down innocents, who were then rushed to hospitals that included two that are affiliated with the medical school where Holmes studied.

In the aftermath, faculty and students at the school’s Center for Neuroscience gathered to discuss what nobody could have foreseen. One neuroscience professor remarked off the record to The Washington Post that Holmes had been “strangely quiet.”

Most of the people who had encountered him through his life simply said “quiet,” an adjective often used for gunmen who commit mass shootings.

Yet most acquaintances—he seems to have had few if any actual friends—recalled little manifest strangeness. One young woman who grew up in the same upper-middle-class neighborhood of San Diego did recall that he tended to root for the villains rather than for the superheroes.

There appears to have been at least one real hero when the Batman screening turned to horror, a 19-year-old named Jarrell Brooks, who is reported by ABC News to have risked being shot himself while helping a woman and her two young daughters to safety after she cried out, “My kids!”

There certainly was an all-too-real and diabolical villain, and whatever RNA might indicate, it is worth considering how much the NRA helped make it possible for him to get the guns.