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Tragedy in Colorado: 'We've had our share'

Two of the most high-profile mass shootings in U.S. history happened 13 years and mere miles apart in the areas surrounding Denver, Colo.

The shootings at an Aurora, Colo., movie theater just after midnight on Friday morning left 12 people dead, 58 wounded and James Eagan Holmes, the 24-year-old suspected shooter, in police custody. In April 1999, two students at Columbine High School, outside of Littleton, Colo., killed 12 students and one teacher. Friday's shooting occurred about 30 minutes northeast of Columbine.

"We’ve had our share of these kinds of shootings," said Delbert Elliott, founding director of the Center for the Study and Prevention of Violence at the University of Colorado. "I don’t have any simple explanation for why that should be happening in Colorado."


That question may be on the minds of Coloradans, but there is no evidence to indicate that the state stands out nationwide. In fact, the number of firearm deaths in Colorado in 2008, the latest available data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, were 10.3 per 100,000 -- the same as the national rate.

Diane R. Follingstad, a forensic psychologist at the University of Kentucky, said that despite proximity, any association with the Columbine shooting would have to be based on specific information given by the suspected shooter.

"These kinds of cases have to have individual assessments," Follingstad said. "If that person was around and lived through (Columbine), what was their knowledge and access to it? Were they trying to parallel something about it? It would be an interesting question to ask, but you’d have to do an individual assessment."

There is no evidence that Holmes lived in Colorado at the time of the Columbine shooting. Holmes was a graduate student from San Diego who was in the process of withdrawing from the neuroscience program at University of Colorado-Denver medical school.

Daniel Vice, senior attorney at the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence, told NBC News that he was not surprised the shooting happened in Colorado. 

"It may be a coincidence that it happened nearby (Columbine), but it’s a reminder that gun laws are weak in Colorado," Vice said. "The state makes it very easy for dangerous people to get deadly weapons." 

Colorado, according to the Brady Center, does not ban assault weapons, has no limits on the number of handguns that can be bought in one purchase and does not provide law enforcement discretion about who can carry a concealed weapon as long the individual has passed a basic background check. In some states, though not in Colorado, a background check requires interviewing family or friends who could express concern about the applicant owning a firearm.

While Vice was critical of Colorado's gun control laws, he said that multiple shooting deaths and injuries happen more frequently nationwide than many realize. In May, for example, a man walked into a Seattle cafe and fatally shot four people and then killed another person in a carjacking. In Oklahoma City, also in May, a 16-year-old boy opened fire in a crowd after an NBA game and shot eight people. In June, three people were killed and two were wounded by gunfire outside a Houston night club.

Such incidents, Vice said, rarely get the attention that mass shootings like at Columbine, Virginia Tech and in Tuscon, but they reflect a harsh reality.

"What (the shooting in Aurora) really symbolizes is that this can happen anywhere -- a high school or movie theater, a small town or big town," he said.

Elliott, of the University of Colorado, said that he was unsure a mass shooting like the one committed in Aurora could be prevented by stricter gun control laws alone. "If I’m intent on going in and shooting people in a theater, I'm not sure those gun control laws would help."

Colorado does have a different safeguard in place, a bystander reporting tool known as Safe2Tell that allows confidential and anonymous reports about threatening behavior or activities. Founded in 2004 on the recommendation of the Columbine Commission, the tool is targeted for school-age children, but can be used by anyone. Susan Payne, the program's executive director, said that bystander reports have prevented 28 school attacks through the confiscation of weapons and hit-lists or the discovery of plans.

Payne said that the non-profit organization, which is led by law enforcement, was examining recent reports to see if someone had expressed concerns ahead of Friday's theater shooting. "We don’t have any information to release at this time," she said.

For Stan Paprocki, a former education consultant who served on the Columbine Commission, the news of the shootings was shocking and devastating, though it was not something he immediately identified with Columbine or Colorado.

"I don't think it's specific to the state because other instances have happened around the country," he said. "It's a senseless, inhumane act."

He said the shooting raises questions about how to prevent such violence in the future.

"I think it pulls a community together and it’s sad that it takes tragedy for a community to come together," Paprocki said. "How do we take care of one another outside of tragic times? How do we make sure that we are collectively safe?"

If you have information to report to Safe2Tell, the confidential hotline is 877.542.7233. Reports can also be made on the organization's website.

Rebecca Ruiz is a reporter at NBC News. M. Alex Johnson and Pete Williams of NBC News contributed to this report.

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