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  • Writer's pictureMario Nicolais

Failure to act is responsible for the latest East High School tragedy

It has been only four months since I wrote about the responsibility we must take as a society for the Club Q “monster.” It is even more true about Austin Lyle, the young man who shot two administrators at East High School last week.

I did not name, and will not name, the Club Q shooter because I believe that notoriety served as a motivator for their actions. But Lyle is different. I do not believe he went to school planning to shoot anyone. It just happened.

And after it happened he drove an hour west into the solitude of the Colorado mountains and appears to have died by suicide. Assuming both East High administrators survive — one has been released and the other was in critical condition but seems likely to live — Lyle’s will be the only life lost in the incident. This is tragedy all around.

It is also a tragedy that we helped create as a society.

Youth gun violence has been on the rise across the country and in Denver in particular. East High has been in the news on multiple occasions for gun violence in and around the building since the start of the school year.

As the violence increases, more kids carry more guns for their own safety, which then leads to increased violence. Five times as many weapons (not necessarily guns) were confiscated in DPS last year (200) as there were in 2018-19 (40), the last year before the pandemic. That is a deadly, downward spiral.

The contributing factors are complex and interwoven. They range from access to mental health care to housing insecurity to lack of positive after-school opportunities. Furthermore, once someone is “in the system,” it can be difficult to get out.

That played out for Lyle, who was initially placed on a diversion program in Arapahoe County for possession of a weapon, but violated its terms before completing all requirements set by the court.

I am not excusing what Lyle did. He carried a gun he should not have had into a school and then turned it on two people, nearly costing them their lives.

But I am also not excusing what our larger community has done, or failed to do, either. If we had addressed the root causes of youth violence that led to a 17-year-old arming himself in a school, we likely would not be talking about this incident right now.

That means we need to start considering youth violence as a public health emergency. Elected leaders should enact policies that address the social determinants that inevitably lead to these outcomes. Simply putting additional school resource officers (SROs) in every school is neither a long-term answer nor a particularly good one.

Adding SROs may have an immediate mollifying effect for scared members of the community, but data suggests that they also disproportionately target Black and brown kids. That is exactly how we end up with racial disparities that perpetuate social determinants that subsequently lead to increased youth violence. The cycle must be broken elsewhere.

Because fixing so many of our societal ills is both a daunting and lengthy process, that means getting real in other areas. Specifically, it means addressing access to guns. After marching on the state Capital just over three weeks ago, after another shooting near East High, students demanded gun reform laws. They were back on Thursday and Friday, accompanied by teachers and supporters.

While gun rights activists will point out Lyle could not legally own the gun he used, that misses the point. Access to legal guns increases access to illegal guns. That is why research shows even nominal changes to child-access prevention laws and concealed-carry laws and similar policies have at least some effect on reducing gun violence.

Just think what would happen if a couple of municipalities stopped nibbling at the edges and used emergency powers to enact policies that would take guns off our streets. It may not be the right decision for Delta or Durango, but it is hard to argue against Denver doing something more.

If we do nothing, then we must remember that the next Austin Lyle will not be the real monster. Instead, it will be the reflection staring back at us in the mirror.

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