Photo: (Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)
By now the entire country has heard about the deadly Aurora, Colorado, movie theatre shooting that left 12 dead and as many as 50 injured.Suspect James Holmes allegedly set off tear gas bombs about 15 minutes into a midnight showing of The Dark Knight before using multiple guns to open fire on the crowd.
But how did this happen? In a state that has already been rocked by dramatic gun violence—namely, the Columbine high school shooting—how was one man allowed to amass four guns, as well as tear gas and other militaristic weapons? And how was he able to carry them without being caught?
The media has been buzzing all day with debate over whether Colorado’s lax weapons laws have allowed another man to slip through the cracks. Just hours after the shooting, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg challenged both President Barack Obama and Republican challenger Mitt Romney to defend their views on gun control.
Colorado gun laws
- Gun registration is not required.
- Gun permits are not required to keep firearms in vehicles.
- As of 2003, it is illegal for any local government or law enforcement agency to “enact an ordinance, regulation or other law that prohibits the sale, purchase or possession of a firearm that a person may lawfully sell, purchase or possess under state or federal law.”
- It is prohibited for law enforcement or local government to build databases of gun buyers or gun owners who leave weapons for repair or sale on consignment; people who transfer gun ownership unless they are federally licensed gun dealers; or serial numbers of guns bought, sold, dropped off for repair or left for sale on consignment.
- There are no laws pertaining to bringing firearms from another state.
- The state has a shall-issue policy for concealed weapons licenses.
- Certain military equipment prohibited or controlled in other states is legal in Colorado, and sale of some of those items is unrestricted.
Holmes’s access to weaponry
The New Republic’s Timothy Noah blogged earlier this morning about how tear gas grenades “are perfectly legal in Colorado, even though there is no legitimate need—none—for someone not in law enforcement or the military,” to use one. BuyPepperSprayToday.com, a website that sells pepper spray and tear gas, among other self-defence products, also advertises the fact that its products are “completely legal” in Colorado with “no restrictions!”
Residents can also buy military-grade tear gas bombs with apparent ease. KeepShooting.com sells tear gas grenades that are “ideal for control and disbursement of crowds.” The advertisement continues, “They are hand held units that are designed for throwing.”
However, Second Amendment activists might argue Holmes would have found a way to commit his crimes, regardless of what the gun laws were.
Another huge debate will likely spring up over laws about gun registration and concealed carry permits, which vary from state to state. Colorado does not force residents to register their guns and follows a “shall-issue” statute for carrying concealed weapons.
That means that local law enforcement is required to provide licenses to citizens wishing to carry concealed weapons so long as they meet certain criteria, and that the authorities have only limited data on active gun owners.
While the sheriff’s office that processes a person’s application for a concealed weapon performs various background checks, the shall-issue policy means there are certain limits in the extent to which it can use its discretion to deny applicants a licence.
The Araphoe County Sheriff’s Officer, which has jurisdiction over some of Aurora, can deny a concealed carry permit to an individual who…
- Has been convicted of a variety of criminal offenses.
- Has an outstanding warrant for arrest.
- Is a juvenile delinquent.
- Is the subject of a restraining or emergency protection order.
- Users of illegal drugs or controlled substances.
- Alcoholics (though recovering alcoholics that have refrained from using alcohol for three years and have an affidavit from a professional counselor are eligible for the permit).
- “Has been adjudicated mentally defective, which includes having been adjudicated incompetent to manage their own affairs, or has been committed to a mental institution.” (emphasis added)
On one hand, it would appear that Holmes could have easily obtained a gun legally, and obtained a concealed carry permit. He did not have a criminal record, nor is he—right now, at least—known to have officially satisfied any of the other criteria that would have prevented him from receiving a permit. So far, we do not know that he ever received psychological help, and even if he did it is not clear that he would have been “adjudicated mentally defective.” This would create problems for any law enforcement agency that tried to revoke his licence.
This means he probably would not have been a red flag even had the state kept comprehensive data on gun ownership.
However, advocates of increased gun control will likely argue that better recording would have alerted officials to the fact that Holmes had purchased a significant number of guns (assuming he did so legally).
Further, shall-issue laws for concealed weaponry would have prohibited officials from revoking the licence should anyone have expressed legitimate issues about his mental health.
Obama vs. Romney
Debates over gun control are likely to take shape in the context of the presidential election, pitting a Mitt Romney who has promised not to impose new gun losses versus an Obama more amenable to enacting new gun control legislation.
In a press release issued in December 2007, Romney wrote:
When it comes to protecting the Second Amendment, I do not support any new gun laws including any new ban on semi-automatic firearms. As President, I will follow President Bush’s precedent of opposing any laws that go beyond the restrictions in place when I take office. The laws I do and will support include decades-old restrictions on weapons of unusual lethality like grenades, rocket launchers, fully automatic firearms and what are legally known as destructive devices and would include similar restrictions on new and exotic weapons of similar or even greater lethality. I am proud of my record of defending life and the Second Amendment.
Obama has remained relatively mum on guns during his presidency, however his support for the Arms Trade Treaty, which entered the final stages of negotiation at the U.N. earlier this month, may be a veritable “D-Day for gun control,” as The Hill’s Dick Morris called it. This legislation would compel the U.S. to change its gun laws in line with recommendations from an international agency, the International Support Union, making gun control an international issue rather than a national one.
Given the polarization of views about the kinds of gun ownership rights afforded by the Second Amendment—and the probability that today’s shooting would have happened anyway—this is an issue that’s likely to blow up in the next few weeks and months.
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