Former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper on Tuesday met with survivors of the Columbine High School attack and other mass shootings four days before the 20th anniversary of the Columbine massacre.
Hickenlooper, who is seeking the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination, has been touting gun control measures he signed following the 2012 Aurora theater shooting, which killed 12 people.
But Tuesday's event had a somber tone and barely touched on the reliable Democratic vote-getting issue of gun control, instead veering into an inconclusive discussion of the need for improved mental health services for both the victims of mass shootings and for potential perpetrators.
Hickenlooper kicked off the hourlong discussion at First Baptist Church in Denver by noting recent suicides of survivors of last year's Parkland High School shooting and of the father of one of the children killed in the Sandy Hook massacre.
He asked the group whether the federal government could ensure broader and longer-lasting mental health support for those affected by attacks.
Tom Mauser, whose son Daniel was one of 13 people killed at Columbine, worries there's been too much emphasis on "be strong" after recent attacks.
"You need to balance that with the reality that some people are still traumatized," he said.
Democratic state Rep. Rhonda Fields, whose district includes the site of the Aurora massacre and whose son was killed earlier in an unrelated homicide, is concerned that resources aren't getting to those who need them.
"There is a ripple effect when it comes to mass shootings," she said. "I don't know if people know how to ask for help sometimes because the focus seems to be on the parents or the students who were right there."
Coni Sanders, whose father, Dave Sanders, was the lone teacher killed at Columbine, now runs a mental health provider. She said she's seen improvements in the system after 20 years.
But Sanders worries about the underfunded mental health system in general. She counsels domestic abusers and others referred by courts but said it's almost impossible for people with mental health issues to find help outside the criminal justice system. Absent a threat that they may imminently harm someone, they're often waved away, she said.
"Unless you go to an emergency room and actually are in crisis, there's no help," Sanders said.
Mauser added that people often deflect calls for gun control with references to mental health but said that truly tackling mental health issues will cost a great deal of taxpayer money.
Hickenlooper, who noted that the state invested $30 million more in mental health care after Aurora, said discussion of mass shootings often centers around gun control, which, he said, is good. But, he added, they need to be broader.
"This is something we really haven't addressed," Hickenlooper said.
During a recent visit to the church in Charleston, South Carolina, where a white supremacist killed nine parishioners in a 2015 mass shooting, Hickenlooper called for more federal funding to provide long-term support for survivors and others traumatized by mass shootings, including first-responders and members of the community.
“While federal funding is currently provided to support survivors and victims’ families in the immediate aftermath of a mass shooting, the terrible recent losses make clear those resources need to be available long-term. We need to provide trauma-informed care and ongoing support for victims based on a clinical assessment of need,” he said then in a statement.
On Tuesday in Denver, Hickenlooper said the recent suicides of family members and survivors of mass shootings are reminders "that trauma has long, long tails; it affects people's lives significantly."
"When we experience a tragedy, we all in some sense experience it, and I think that there's a shared responsibility to make sure we reach out to those who've been most directly affected, who've gone through the worst experience of their life, that we help them get through it," he said.
The cost would be small, Hickenlooper said, "and yet the meaning, the gift would be so immense."
Noting that he felt close to the family members of the survivors who had just taken part in the discussion, Hickenlooper added: "It seems the proper role of federal government to be able to provide these kinds of resources, the counseling and in some cases the therapy, so that people can get back on with their lives and not be emotionally crippled the rest of their lives.
"As everybody says, you never forget it, you never get past it. But there is an ability to rejoin their communities and find joy again."
Ernest Luning of Colorado Politics and Nicholas Riccardi of The Associated Press reported.