An assault on citizens’ safety

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In the somber wake of last week’s mass shooting at an Aurora movie theater, Coloradans are looking for answers.

 Was the perpetrator mentally ill, or simply evil? Why does Colorado seem to have far more than its share of gun violence? And what can we do to prevent these types of attacks in the future?
Answers are very hard to come by at this point, but violence of this magnitude inevitably leads to comparisons with the Columbine High shootings.
One thing the two attacks had in common was the ease with which a person set on killing can obtain an assault rifle. And it seems to me that while it’s unlikely mental illness or evil can be cured or prevented, we could make it a lot harder to legally possess an AK-47.
We misspent billions of dollars on a foreign war to hunt down Iraq’s non-existent weapons of mass destruction. Meanwhile, the WMDs in our midst domestically continue to be on sale at sporting goods stores.
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Back in my college days, our newspaper staff worked hard to vett the candidates for student government and then made endorsements on the opinion page. These elections were more important than you might think, because Penn State’s student government doled out a significant amount of cash to various campus clubs and organizations.
One year a particular slate of candidates who did not expect to receive an endorsement tried to reduce our newspaper’s influence in the election with a simple and ultimately very effective strategy: They stole several thousand copies.
And yet, the campus police were nonplussed. One of the responding officers was heard to say, “Can you really steal something that’s free?”
Today that question is being asked again, as a task force of the Colorado Commission on Criminal and Juvenile Justice is recommending that the state law against newspaper theft be abolished. I speak from experience when I tell you that the premise of the question is terribly flawed: There is no such thing as a free newspaper, even when the product itself is given away.
A newspaper is not free to the advertisers who pay hard-earned dollars to appear in print. It is most certainly not free for the reporters who spend long hours working to inform readers about their communities. And you cannot place a value on the First Amendment imperative that guarantees newspapers the right of free expression and circulation.
The Columbine Courier is a “free” paper. This publication has exposed back-door land deals by county commissioners and played the central role in a former county official being found in violation of two state ethics laws. It has brought to light numerous violations of the open meetings and open records laws. And it chronicles a community that otherwise might have no voice.
The measure of a newspaper is not in the price on its cover, but in the role it plays in making democracy work. Is any newspaper really free? Only in the sense that it is part of the price for freedom.

Doug Bell is the editor of the Courier.