The suspect in the Colorado shooting bought two pistols, a semiautomatic rifle and a shotgun since May, avoiding federal reporting requirements and taking advantage of the state’s failure to pass significant firearms legislation since the Columbine massacre 13 years ago.
The suspect, James Holmes, 24, didn’t purchase the handguns from the same store within five days, which would have triggered a requirement for the seller to notify the U.S. Justice Department, according to a federal official who asked for anonymity and wasn’t authorized to speak publicly. Holmes hadn’t committed any offenses that would have raised an alarm during required background checks, the official said.
The shooting early yesterday killed 12 inside an Aurora, Colorado, movie theater. The incident renewed debate over gun laws, with advocates saying the slayings show the need for tighter controls. Lawmakers haven’t clamped down on firearms after earlier shootings gripped public attention, including one in January 2011 that wounded Gabrielle Giffords, then a Democratic U.S. Representative, in Tucson, Arizona.
“You get this fervor in people when something like this happens,” said Ron Teck, a former Republican state senator from Grand Junction, Colorado. He was a lawmaker when the Columbine High School killings took place. “I would be really surprised if anything actually does happen.”
The deadliest shooting in the U.S. in recent years occurred on the Virginia Tech campus in 2007, when Seung-Hui Cho took 33 lives, including his own. In the 1999 Columbine attack, two students shot 12 classmates and a teacher in the suburban Denver school before killing themselves.
After Columbine, a measure requiring background checks for purchases at gun shows passed the U.S. Senate and stalled in the House of Representatives. No major gun-control laws passed following the Virginia Tech shooting or after Jared Lee Loughner opened fire last year in a Tucson parking lot, killing six and wounding Giffords.
In Colorado, state lawmakers refused to pass new gun-control measures after Columbine. Voters responded by approving a constitutional amendment that required background checks before firearms could be purchased at a gun show.
A bill that would have eliminated Colorado’s background check system, known as InstaCheck, passed the Republican-controlled Colorado House this year and stalled in the Senate, led by Democrats. The measure was backed by the National Rifle Association, which said the check duplicates federal requirements.
After the attack in Aurora, authorities seized a Glock G22 and a Glock G23, both .40 caliber pistols, one Remington 870 Express Tactical 12-gauge shotgun and one Smith & Wesson M&P .223 caliber semiautomatic rifle, the federal official said.
Holmes used the shotgun, rifle and one of the Glocks in the shooting, Aurora Police Chief Daniel Oates told reporters.
Two of the guns were purchased at the Denver store of Bass Pro Shops, said Larry Whiteley, manager of communications for the Springfield, Missouri-based company. The store followed federal requirements and background checks were conducted, Whiteley said in a statement.
In Colorado, there are no specific rules that would prohibit those guns from being owned, said Robert Brown, the agent in charge of background checks at the state Bureau of Investigation.
Colorado doesn’t require gun registration and there is no specific waiting period to buy a firearm. Instead, purchases are approved as soon as U.S. authorities clear a list of 10 criteria, such as assuring the buyer isn’t a fugitive or an illegal alien, and the state conducts its own checks, including for restraining orders and juvenile arrests.
Residents can carry concealed weapons in Colorado. Sheriffs approve concealed-carry permits if applicants are at least 21, haven’t committed perjury and complete a gun-training course, among other requirements. The state also recognizes concealed-carry permits from 30 other states.
Colorado residents with a permit can’t carry a firearm in schools, some government buildings and on private property where guns are prohibited by the owner, Brown said.
Congress should “prevent future tragedies” and pass stricter gun control laws in response to the movie theater shooting, Dan Gross, head of the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence, said in a statement. The Washington-based group describes itself as the country’s largest pro-gun-control lobby.
The NRA, a membership organization that says it’s widely recognized as a “major political force” and the country’s “foremost defender” of Second Amendment rights, declined to comment on the gun-control debate.
“Our thoughts and prayers are with the victims, their families and the community,” NRA public affairs director Andrew Arulanandam, said by e-mail. “NRA will not have any further comment until all the facts are known.”
The NRA has persuaded state lawmakers to make it easier to buy and carry guns, said Adam Winkler, a University of California, Los Angeles, law professor who wrote about the subject in his book, “Gunfight: The Battle over the Right to Bear Arms.”
Winkler pointed to states such as Arizona and Wyoming that don’t require permits to carry guns. Florida lawmakers in 2008 forced business owners to let employees and shoppers bring firearms on their property and leave the firearms locked in their cars.
Virginia lawmakers this year repealed a cap on buying more than one handgun per month.
“Tragic incidents like this don’t move gun-control laws,” Winkler said in an interview. “No matter how many people die, gun control reforms go nowhere.”