Boulder mourns victims of shooting as leaders consider gun control, mental health care

The city banned assault weapons in 2018, though a Boulder County District Court judge ruled just days before the shooting that such a ban was illegal under state law

Conrad Swanson and Noelle Phillips
The Denver Post
Boulder Mayor Sam Weaver took a call Wednesday morning from President Joe Biden, offering condolences as the city continues to reel from the shooting at a King Soopers grocery store that left 10 dead, including a police officer.

Now Weaver looks toward recovery and the future to see what protections — however marginal — Boulder can enact in hopes of preventing any more killing in a state that's already suffered far too many mass shootings. At the same time, a former principal of the suspected shooter pores over his interactions with the young student years ago and hopes to build more safeguards in his own school.

Both came to the conclusion that whatever the solutions might be, they'll involve gun control and increased attention to mental health.

Flowers are seen at a fence outside the location where a gunman opened fire at King Soopers grocery store on Monday on March 23, 2021, in Boulder, Colorado. Ten people were killed in the attack.
Flowers are seen at a fence outside the location where a gunman opened fire at King Soopers grocery store on Monday on March 23, 2021, in Boulder, Colorado. Ten people were killed in the attack. (Chet Strange/Getty Images/TNS)

All the while Boulder continued to mourn the dead Wednesday, with police and residents lining the west side of Foothills Parkway for an afternoon procession honoring Officer Eric Talley, 51, who was killed after rushing into the store to confront the gunman. Others flocked to the scene of Monday's shooting to share their grief.

Paul and Cathie Soderman brought sage and 10 Lakota prayer ties strung together with a cord to honor the souls of the dead. Each prayer tie held a pouch with a pinch of tobacco, Cathie Soderman said.

"A big part of healing is being with the community," she said. "It's very healing for people to get together, not knowing each other but sharing the grief process."

Paul Soderman said he feared a mass shooting would one day strike Boulder because they're far too common in the United States.

"Our bubble was popped," he said.

Two young men placed a poster with photos of Neven Stanisic, one of the 10, against the fence and lit a candle. They stood silently, wiping tears and staring at the building, as a few older adults patted their shoulders and hugged them. Stanisic had been inside King Soopers to repair a coffee machine and was leaving when the shooting started.

"Our focus right now is on the victims"

After the president offered his sympathies to the mayor and Boulder's victims, Weaver said Biden asked what help he could offer.

"Our focus right now is on the victims, on healing, and I said I didn't think there was a lot the federal government could do about that part," Weaver said. "But changing the laws around gun access and around assault weapons is something we obviously care about in Boulder... and we would love federal support in doing that."

Boulder banned assault weapons in 2018, though a Boulder County District Court judge ruled just days before the shooting that such a ban was illegal under a 2003 state law prohibiting cities from enacting those types of laws. Boulder's ban would have outlawed the Ruger AR-556 pistol — designed similar to a rifle — the suspect is accused of using, though it's unclear where he bought the weapon and he lived in nearby Arvada, not Boulder.

Weaver acknowledged the disparity and noted that the ban would have provided marginal security, which he said is still better than nothing. He said he wants Boulder's city attorney to appeal the judge's ruling. If that doesn't work, the mayor wondered whether a ballot initiative to ban assault weapons once more in Boulder would work.

Barring those options, Weaver said he wants to work with state Senate Majority Leader Steve Fenberg, whose district includes Boulder, to remove the law prohibiting cities from enacting those bans.

Conversations about such a repeal have ramped up in the past few days, Fenberg said Tuesday.

During his call with Biden, Weaver said the two discussed the national ban on assault weapons, which was in place from 1994 until it expired in 2004 and what action the president could take on a federal level.

"It's clear from our conversation that an assault weapons ban would need to come through Congress as it did before," Weaver said.

The mayor expressed cautious optimism about taking action locally and across the state, though was less confident in widespread changes at a federal level.

Weaver also spoke of expanding background checks to look for "all kinds of violence," including misdemeanor assault, which would have popped up in shooting suspect Ahmad Al Aliwi Alissa's record, and "any kind of marker for psychological disturbance." In addition, state and local communities must expand access to mental health care, he said.

Some reform might already be on the way. State Rep. Tom Sullivan previously told The Denver Post he expects to propose a bill for a mandatory waiting period of up to five days for gun buyers.

"Could I have done something different?"

Mental health care is where Brett Stringer's mind went after he heard of the shooting and recognized Alissa's name. Stringer, now a principal in Minneapolis, said he worked as an assistant principal for the Denver middle school Alissa, now 21, attended.

Stringer recalled Alissa dressing mostly in athletic gear and with a short haircut, which seems to match his memory of him as a wrestling student. He considered a middle school picture someone sent him of Alissa and said he remembered the student's smirk, "this little smile he did have."

The larger memory, Stringer said, is of Alissa's family, which he described as large and loving. Nothing nefarious stuck out from Alissa's behavior at the time and he was surprised to hear the former student was the suspect in Colorado's latest mass shooting.

The reasons behind Alissa's office visits were relatively innocuous and nothing sinister that rang alarm bells, Stringer said.

"It was always misunderstandings, interpretations of, 'Somebody mean mugged me,'" he said.
And they were always resolved, he said.

"Of course it crossed my mind, like, could I have done something different?" Stringer said. "I don't know when things went wrong for him, but obviously something happened in the last five, six, seven, eight years."

Stringer looks now to his school in Minneapolis and said he shared his story. He wants to ensure that his students feel comfortable and have the opportunity to connect with their peers rather than feeling like outsiders. And he wants his teachers to be able to recognize when kids need help and take action rather than waiting until it's too late.

He emphasized that while some blame Alissa's race or religion, the problem at hand is instead tied to gun control and mental health.

Alissa is scheduled to appear in court in Boulder on Thursday morning and will be advised of the 10 charges of first-degree murder he faces.

"A hole in our family"

Thursday is when Rikki Olds, another victim, was supposed to meet with her uncle and other family members to celebrate her grandmother's birthday.

That uncle, Robert Olds, and her former King Soopers co-worker, Carlee Lough, met with journalists Wednesday. Rikki Olds had been working her way up the King Soopers ladder with the goal of becoming a store manager.

"There's a hole in our family that won't be filled," Robert Olds said.

At the store, co-workers nicknamed Rikki "Wendy" because she often wore two long braids and dyed them different colors, Lough said.

Lough worked on Monday but left early and was gone when the shooter walked in, she said. She learned about the shooting when family members started texting her. When asked how she was doing, Lough replied, "Not well."

Olds said he kept texting his niece but heard nothing. They last spoke over the weekend about celebrating her grandmother's birthday.

"She said, 'See ya Thursday.'" That was the last Olds heard from his niece.

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