The man accused of the Colorado movie-theater shooting amassed his ammunition stockpile with help from a 26-year-old law the National Rifle Association hailed at the time as its “greatest legislative milestone.”
The 1986 measure made two dozen changes to gun regulations, including lifting a ban on interstate sales of ammunition to consumers, allowing mail-order purchases and, eventually, Internet sales. The law, called the Firearms Owners’ Protection Act, also allowed dealers to sell weapons at gun shows and made it easier to cross state lines with firearms.
Passage of the act, and the failure of gun-control advocates to repeal it in the decades since, illustrates the power of the NRA-led gun-rights movement over national firearms policy. The Colorado mass shooting, in which police say the suspect purchased 6,000 rounds of ammunition on the Internet, has prompted calls for legislation to limit mail-order sales.
“It’s time to stop, take stock, hold hearings and expose the issues,” said former Representative James Oberstar, a Minnesota Democrat, who backed the gun legislation in 1986 and now says allowing mail-order sales may have been a mistake. “Internet sales should at least be subject to the same background checks and scrutiny that is given to gun purchases.”
Supporters and opponents of gun control are debating whether restrictions on Internet sales could have prevented the July 20 shooting in Aurora, Colorado, in which James Holmes, 24, is accused of opening fire during the new Batman movie. Twelve people died and at least 58 were injured in the attack.
Limits on Internet ammunition sales could have bought time for someone to raise suspicion over Holmes’s purchases, Oberstar said.
Former U.S. Senator Bill Armstrong, a Colorado Republican who said he voted for final passage of the 1986 legislation, called suggestions that restrictions on ammunition could have prevented the shooting “shoveling a lot of smoke.”
“What happened in Aurora is shocking, it’s just terrible,” said Armstrong, now president of Colorado Christian University. “But that doesn’t mean we ought to ban guns or ban movie theaters or ban all Internet sales.”
The legislation removed a requirement for dealers to record the name, age and home address of customers who buy bullets.
U.S. law prohibits felons, drug addicts or targets of a domestic restraining order, among other people, from acquiring or possessing ammunition. Dealers aren’t responsible for enforcing those rules. Unlike with gun purchases, there is no requirement for customers to undergo background checks. Dealers can be prosecuted for knowingly selling handguns and some types of long-gun ammunition to minors, though they aren’t required to confirm a buyer’s age.
Andrew Arulanandam, a spokesman for the Fairfax, Virginia-based NRA, didn’t return a phone call seeking comment. Requests for comment to the NRA public affairs office also weren’t returned.
James Reinke, who was president of the NRA when the measure passed, called it “the greatest legislative milestone in the NRA’s history” in the group’s American Rifleman publication. He also said the measure “fundamentally changes things for the better for all law-abiding Americans.”
The NRA, a membership organization that says it’s the country’s “foremost defender” of the Second Amendment, has fought back against ammunition regulations and most other firearms restrictions.
The 1986 measure included stiffer penalties for crimes committed with guns, and a ban on machine gun sales, helping it win bipartisan support.
When a version of the legislation originally passed the Senate, Democrats Al Gore and Joe Biden were among those supporting it. The House later made changes unrelated to the ammunition provision before the Senate gave it final approval in a voice vote that didn’t record individual lawmakers’ positions. Gore declined to comment, said spokeswoman Betsy McManus. The office of Biden, now U.S. vice president, didn’t return a call.
U.S. ammunition sales last year were an estimated $1.5 billion, according to the National Shooting Sports Foundation, a firearms trade association based in Newtown, Connecticut. The group’s sales estimates indicate a gradual increase over the years, and no sudden spike after Congress relaxed the law.
House Democrats who voted in favor of final passage of the 1986 bill included Harry Reid of Nevada, who is now the Senate majority leader, and former Representative Bill Richardson of New Mexico, a 2008 presidential candidate. Neither Reid nor Richardson returned phone calls seeking comment.
New Jersey’s James Florio, a former Democratic congressman who received the 1993 John F. Kennedy Profile in Courage Award partly for gun control measures passed while he was governor, also voted for the bill. Florio said he couldn’t recall why he backed the legislation.
Tim Wirth, a Colorado Democrat who describes himself as a gun-control advocate, also said he was unable to remember why he voted for the bill when he was a U.S. House member. Wirth, who also served in the Senate and is now president of the United Nations Foundation, a UN fundraiser, said Congress should enact tougher ammunition regulations.
The bill was signed into law by then-President Ronald Reagan, who had survived an assassination attempt five years earlier that severely wounded James Brady, his press secretary.
After the Senate vote, Brady’s wife, Sarah, joined the board of Handgun Control Inc., which is now known as the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, a Washington-based group that claims to be the country’s largest pro-gun-control lobby. Reagan died in 2004.
The gun measure’s sponsors included then-Representative Harold Volkmer, a Missouri Democrat, and then-Senator James McClure, an Idaho Republican. Both died last year.
The bill eliminated “a good 75 percent” of the 1968 Gun Control Act, according to a 1984 press release from John M. Snyder, who claimed to be the nation’s senior pro-gun lobbyist at the time. The 1968 law was passed after the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy.
Passage of the 1986 legislation demonstrated the NRA’s emerging power, said William Vizzard, a professor emeritus of criminal justice at California State University-Sacramento, and a former agent with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.
“This showed the transition of the NRA from a low-key group of amateur shooters putting on competitions and building rifle ranges to becoming one of the most powerful lobbying organizations in Washington, D.C.,” Vizzard said.
Democrats have attempted to reinstate certain ammunition controls over the years.
Former Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan and then-Representative Charles Schumer, both New York Democrats, sought to reinstate the mail-order ban in the 1990s.
This week, Senator Frank Lautenberg of New Jersey and Representative Carolyn McCarthy of New York say they’ll introduce legislation that would require dealers to notify law enforcement when unlicensed customers purchase more than 1,000 rounds within five days. It would effectively ban Internet sales by requiring buyers to present a photo identification.
“Right now, the policy on ammunition is keep your fingers crossed and hope that only the good guys are buying ammunition,” Lautenberg told reporters at a July 30 news conference in New York.
Background checks on ammunition are an unnecessary hassle for consumers and dealers, said Mike McNett, an ammunition dealer who owns Double Tap Ammo in Cedar City, Utah. He said he increasingly depends on Internet sales.
“If you have a gun, that check has already been done,” McNett said. “If you’ve got ammo and no gun, all you’ve got are expensive rocks to throw.”