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‘I don’t want this to give us a black mark’: locals grapple with aftermath

From left, Tylecia Amos, 14, Shatyra Amos, 15, Michael Walker, 17, and Mykia Walker, 16, carry flowers to lay at a makeshift memorial across the street from the Century Theater parking lot, on Saturday, July 21, 2012 in Aurora, Colo.

Barry Gutierrez/AP

Surrounded by ranches as perfectly groomed as golf courses and by a wall of arid brown mountains streaked with snow, this high, beautiful city in the American West seems like the last place Gotham would rise.

Except, that is, for the long dark shadow still cast by Columbine, where a school became a shooting gallery and Colorado went on the world map as a place of senseless violence.

And now this – 70 innocent people shot in the Century 16 movie plaza, 12 dead, 11 fighting for life in hospital, and the City of Aurora, on Denver's outskirts, swarming once again with media.

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People are still trying to make sense of the shooting the day after the gunman, believed to be 24-year-old James Holmes, went into a crowded theatre heavily armed and with a plan to turn the opening night of the new Batman film into a bloodbath.

And they can't – except to explain it as the one-off act of a crazy person.

"I don't want this to give us a black mark," said Tom Thornton, as he walked along the police barrier outside the movie theatre, a bunch of flowers in one hand. "I've seen stuff on social media, that Aurora is a bad place. It's not ... Every city has its own degenerates and we had one [Friday]," he said.

His 8 year-old daughter, McKenna, trailed along as he found a place to lay the flowers.

On the other side of the complex, Anthony Palmieri held a lap dog to his chest and watched as police went in and out of the building, continuing an investigation that began shortly after the chaos ended early Friday morning.

"It's sickening," he said, "but this doesn't reflect on people as a whole."

But Mr. Palmieri, as does almost everyone you talk to here, raised the spectre of Columbine.

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"I just don't know," he said, when asked to explain how two terrible mass shootings could happen in one community.

But he said, as did many others, that he wasn't going to stop him from loving Denver and the people in it.

"I hope they don't close down the theatre," he said. "If they close down the Century, then the psychos win. If they open it, I'm going to be the first in line ... That's how you fight bullies. And my thinking is, people just got to get back to regular life."

They have been trying to do that. Saturday, the police lines around the sprawling mall were pulled back so that the Dillards, JC Penny, Sears and Macy's big box stores could open. And the parking lots were soon busy.

Just a few minutes drive away, police, fire and federal bomb experts from the FBI were working at defusing an elaborate web of booby traps the shooting suspect had left in his apartment before walking out, with techno music blaring, to head for the movie theatre.

Once there, police say he bought a ticket, slipped out an exit, propping the door open, while he returned to his vehicle. He came back with tear gas canisters, a 12-gauge shotgun, an M&P15 automatic rifle and a Glock .40-calibre pistol. He was dressed in a tactical vest, a ballistic helmet and a gas mask. One report said his hair was dyed red, like the Joker's.

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Those who survived described a scene that seemed to have leaped right off the screen from the fictional city of Gotham.

"It took seven shots for me to realize it wasn't a joke ... by that point everyone was screaming to get down," Emma Goos, a 19-year-old college student told the Denver Post.

"His face was completely covered. He looked like a monster," she said.

But those who knew him describe him differently – as a quiet, intelligent man who was something of a loner.

"That's what bothers me," said Mr. Palmieri. "I could have walked past him on the street. As a matter of fact I probably did. And I wouldn't have taken any notice. He looks just like a regular guy."

His neighbours say he never stood out – except for Friday night, when he uncharacteristically had loud music blaring on his stereo, shortly before midnight.

Outside the Firing Line, an indoor shooting range just a few blocks from the theatre, Larry Brown was getting ready to sight in a revolver.

He said the shooting incident is a terrible tragedy, but he wasn't about to blame America's gun culture.

"It's not the guns. It's just like if you hit someone with a car – it's not the car, it's the idiot operating the equipment," he said.

Mr. Brown said some media reports suggest the suspected shooter's parents had been concerned about his emotional state in the past.

"But you can't blame mom and dad for what he did. And you most definitely cannot blame the weapon," he said.

Police have reported that two of the guns used in the shooting were bought in a local Bass Pro Shops. Located about a 10-minute drive away, the store bills itself as "Denver's Great American Outdoors Store."

And it is that. The massive building, where stuffed grizzly bears, wolves and other dead game eye shoppers, is a testament to the great love Coloradans have for the outdoors, for hunting, and for guns of all kinds.

On one level, hundreds of rifles and hand guns are on display, ranging in price from a few hundred dollars to over $40,000.

On Saturday, the gun shop was busy. And the buyers weren't just young men.

Shouldered up to the counter near the women's camo gear was a young woman, with two toddlers in a shopping cart. She was hefting a light, high-powered rifle.

Nearby, a young couple was pushing their credit card across the counter to buy a weapon, and beside them a group of three middle-aged men were looking at Glock handguns. The same type of weapon the shooter carried into the show, The Dark Knight Rises.

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