Justin Got His Gat

Somewhere at the bottom of Grasmere Lake is an Egyptian-made assault rifle with an empty clip. It was manufactured in Cairo and then shipped to Scottie's Guns & Militaria on East Colfax Avenue, just a short walk from the elegant Park Hill home where Justin Green grew up and where he was living with his parents in the summer of 2000.

Green, who was then twenty, had a job shelving books at the Central Denver Public Library. He would drive by the gun store in his Mazda MX6 on his way to work. One day, on an impulse, he went inside.

He was mesmerized by the Maadi MISR knockoff AK-47 in the display rack. It was black and gleaming and looked just like an A to the K, the assault rifle lionized in a thousand gangster-rap tracks as the weapon to sport when you absolutely, positively have to kill every last muthafucka in the room.

Green didn't have any muthafuckas he needed to kill. He was a privileged only child, going to college, with two loving, generous, still-married parents -- his father a high-tech engineer, his mother a lawyer.

But like a million other well-educated, well-off white kids raised in the 1980s, Green developed a taste for gangster rap and a corresponding fetish for exotic, high-powered weaponry. Able to quote Robert Frost and Ice Cube with equal authority, he knew the difference between a MAC-10 and an AR-15 even though he'd never fired a gun more powerful than a squirrel rifle. "I've always been attracted to rap music, and gangster rap, especially," he says. "I think I suffered from a lot of ennui, and gangster rap was like a fantasy realm where things such as honor and life-or-death situations and excitement was very much a part of daily life. I was attracted to it for the same reasons farm kids in Iowa and Kansas are listening to rap: because it glorifies hardship, and I grew up without any."

He paid $500 for the semi-automatic, twenty-round-capacity assault rifle.

"I bought it just because I could," he says. "It seemed like such an extreme thing to own. Guns always had a taboo allure for me, and this wasn't just any gun. It was an AK."

Green's parents favor strict gun-control laws. When Green was young, his father inherited a collection of antique shotguns. He gave them away because he didn't want his son growing up around any firearms, not even collector's items.

"We never dreamed Justin would bring a gun into our home," his mother says. "It was such a violation."

Green kept his assault rifle hidden in a ski bag beneath his bed. He held private showings for select friends he'd known for more than a decade, since they were classmates at Graland Country Day School.

"When I'd bring it out, no one was like, 'Hey, man, put that away. You shouldn't have that,'" he remembers. "Their universal reaction was, 'That is so cool. Let me hold it.' And then, 'Let's go shoot it.' They respected it, and they respected me for having it."

Three times in the first three months after he bought the Maadi, Green and five or six friends, young men and women, drove out to the plains around Watkins and blew the hell out of hay bales and beer cans and old TVs. Then the novelty wore off and the weather got cold, and Green didn't fire the gun again until the night he panicked and threw it into Grasmere Lake. The night he shot his life full of holes.

It was Saturday, September 7, 2001. Green had moved out of his mom and dad's house three months earlier and was living in a rental near the University of Denver, in the 2200 block of South High Street. He was a sophomore at the University of Colorado at Denver, with a heavy course load in history and religious studies. Classes had just started.

The Maadi was in the back of his closet. It was unloaded.

"I tried to be a responsible gun owner," Green says.

Carson Vaudrin had just moved in with Green that week. The two had been friends since grade school. Vaudrin was the overweight kid Green stuck up for when other kids made fun of him behind his back. Green was the small, bookish one Vaudrin protected from bullies. The only trouble they'd ever gotten in together was when they were fifteen and they'd shot up Vaudrin's mom's tomato plants with a borrowed BB gun.

Vaudrin had a prescription for Xanax, an anti-anxiety drug commonly prescribed by psychiatrists. When Green woke up that Saturday around noon, he popped two of Vaudrin's pills, waited about an hour, popped five more and went back to bed. He woke up at dusk. His brain was cloaked in pharmaceutical velvet.

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David Holthouse
Contact: David Holthouse