AURORA | Creating an identity seems always to have frustrated Aurora, long-time community leaders have often said.
A sprawling suburb with no real center, the city for years longed for something to define it, to shake off the image of just another sea of beige housing developments. Something more than the place east of Denver.
Many say July 20, 2012, changed all of that.
Toting a deadly arsenal and decked out in military-grade armor, a lone gunman stormed an Aurora movie theater, indiscriminately blasting rounds from an assault rifle and shotgun into a terrified crowd. The rampage spanned just 72 seconds, but it left 12 moviegoers dead, dozens more wounded and a community forever changed.
Beyond the carnage and suffering, the massacre stripped Aurora of its lamented anonymity. Like Virginia Tech before it and Newtown after, Aurora post-July 20 is “one of those places,” forever bound to the American gun violence that shocks the world with increasing frequency.
Joining this unenviable club recently are the towns of Uvalde, Texas and Highland Park, Illinois.
Despite the association with the mass shooting, however, the city’s former mayor said the city has grown to accept and build on the tragedy of the shooting. The city has incorporated its fate into a new role as a leader in healing and moving past such disasters, local memorial foundation volunteers say.
“Ten years out, we’re offering different ways to heal for everyone in the community,’ said Heather Dearman, foundation CEO. The list of events is below.
Former Mayor Steve Hogan said the theater shooting absolutely enveloped Aurora, but it’s never defined it.
While Aurora will for at least generations be harnessed to the tragedy, it’s absorbed the distinction but moved on in what some say is a healing process for communities struck by such tragedies.
During the 10-year marker of the theater shooting, a host of public events are slated by the 7/20 Foundation, a group made up mostly of families of theater shooting victims and even the victims themselves.
Healing takes time, community leaders and mental health officials say. A very long time.
Just after the shootings, there was an outpouring of sympathy. Aurora was one of the unlucky few that instantly became synonymous with unthinkable murder.
For the past decade, however, it’s been Aurora leaders and officials reaching out to other police departments and communities, helping them past their own crisis.
Above all, many Aurora officials say they recognize and appreciate how differently people react to and deal with the event, which not only directly affected hundreds of people, but indirectly impacted tens of thousands in the region.
To mark ten years since the theater shooting, the Aurora History Museum is curating a unique exhibit of photos and artifacts from the initial days and weeks after the massacre.
Relatively new to Aurora, museum curator Chris Shackelford said the assignment of creating a visual recollection of the tragedy came with an unusual tie to his life just after college in Cedar Falls, Iowa. Shackelford was attending a midnight opening of the same Batman movie as in
Aurora, nearly at the exact same time.
He said he left the theater charged by the show and began searching the internet for first reviews when he got home. There he saw news that there’d been a shooting in a Colorado theater hosting a premiere screening just like the one he saw. Like many Americans, he was shocked by the growing threat of a mass shooting, this time inside a movie theater, he said.
Ten years later, he’s curating an exhibit focusing on the disaster, choosing among poignant photos and select mementos from the massive impromptu memorials that grew near the theater after the shooting.
He and Heather both think the upcoming events and museum exhibit will offer residents and newcomers an opportunity to reflect on the gravity of the massacre but leave with a sense of hope, if for no other reason, because Aurora has become a place of solidarity.
Despite the heartache and horror the shooting caused, it’s left a community that’s resolute on many fronts.