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Photo by Robert Sanchez.

Why You Shouldn’t Set Off Fireworks on the Fourth of July

Some Douglas County residents were asked not to shoot off fireworks this week out of respect for those traumatized by the STEM School shooting in May. In my mind, it's the least we can do.

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Fireworks have been on my mind a lot lately, for obvious reasons. My son had been bothering me about bottle rockets and Black Cats and poppers, to set off in the street outside our house in suburban Douglas County as part of the Fourth of July celebrations with my extended family.

I was on a reporting trip in Fort Collins on Monday, and a radio advertisement reminded me that the fireworks bonanza, also known as Wyoming, beckoned me from just a few dozen miles away. The image of my son’s smiling face suddenly beamed into my mind. After days of pestering, I was ready to cave.

But then I checked my inbox. Under the subject “HAPPY FOURTH OF JULY!” my homeowner’s association sent this:

To All Homeowners:

It has been brought to our attention by a homeowner that there are a few survivors of the STEM school shooting living in the….neighborhood. They have requested that we send an e-blast asking all homeowners to be considerate of these students and to not shoot off any fireworks….this 4th of July.

I’d seen the yard signs that popped up in the week after the shooting—the ones that thanked Kendrick Castillo, the hero teenager who died—and urged the community to remain STEM STRONG. I’d been to a graduation party a few weeks ago for a boy who was at the school that afternoon. As people hovered around bean salads, no one talked about what happened or what he saw or didn’t see, or the lasting damage that moment may have caused in this young man’s life.

I profiled former Columbine High School principal Frank DeAngelis for 5280 in 2013. At one point during an interview with him, DeAngelis told me the sound of a popped balloon could still bring him to tears. Years ago, I talked to a former Columbine student who—more than a decade after the shootings, at the time—hated the sound of applause. There was another former student who wanted to hide when she heard a car backfire.

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For these Columbine survivors, auditory surprises were around them every day, landmines they didn’t know existed until they suddenly did. A few decades ago, this might have been viewed as an oddity—or even a weakness. What adult cries when a balloon pops? Today, though, science is telling us more about how the brain processes traumatic events. How there isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution to a very real issue. It’s why today we understand people who weren’t in a building during a shooting can be just as traumatized (or even more traumatized) than a person who saw the act. It’s why we know that someone like DeAngelis, a hero in every definition of the word, could suddenly break down because he heard something that reminded him of something completely different.

Which got me thinking about the survivors of the Aurora theater shooting and the Colorado Springs church shooting and the Arapahoe High School shooting and, of course the STEM shooting. These survivors are all around us. And then I thought about a Marine friend of mine who worked multiple tours of Afghanistan. He returned with a traumatic brain injury and post-traumatic stress so bad that he once put his son on the floor. The boy’s mistake? He surprised his father by tapping the man on his shoulder. In a split second, my friend wasn’t a loving dad watching television on the couch. He was back in a war.

So I got that email on Monday afternoon, and I suddenly felt stupid. Instead of making a left on I-25 and heading for Wyoming, I made a right and went home. There will be no fireworks at my house on Thursday night. I’m guessing there won’t be any fireworks at my house ever again.

I’m hoping Fourth of July in my neighborhood is a quiet one, an inaudible act of kindness for some kids who endured an unfathomable moment this year. Maybe it’ll give some relief to other neighbors who’ve suffered in silence for far too long. In my mind, it’s the least we can do.

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