Debate over gun control resurrected

State and federal lawmakers look at possible legislation
The Colorado Statesman

In the wake of a senseless and horrific mass-shooting at an Aurora movie theater last Friday that left 12 dead and 58 injured, state lawmakers are already preparing to introduce stricter gun control legislation for Colorado.
Reps. Beth McCann, D-Denver, and Rhonda Fields, D-Aurora, say they are discussing a slew of proposals that could involve a statewide ban on assault weapons, a prohibition on Internet purchases of certain ammunition and military armament being shipped to Colorado, a ban on high-capacity ammunition clips in the state, and stricter background checks.

The two lawmakers don’t have concrete proposals yet, but say they will be moving forward next year with legislation to address the state’s relatively lax gun laws.

“You don’t want to just react to some horrible thing, but it does sort of emphasize the need for looking at the issues again,” said McCann. “I think it’s worthy of a discussion among a lot of us — this whole issue of assault weapons and basically these mass destruction-type weapons.”

“The massacre in Aurora is not just an incident, it’s a pattern,” claims Reverend Jesse Jackson in Denver on Thursday.
Photo by John Schoenwalter/The Colorado Statesman

“We just have to do something,” added Fields, whose district includes the part of Aurora where in the early morning hours of July 20 accused lone gunman James Holmes allegedly opened fire at the Century 16 movie theater.

Fields also lost her son in Aurora in 2005 when he and his fiancée were gunned down as he was getting ready to testify at a murder trial.

“It’s just that more and more people are going to lose their lives senselessly,” lamented Fields.

Pastor Leon Emerson, center, president of the Greater Metro Denver Ministerial Alliance and Pastor Thomas Mayes, right, of the Living Water Christian Center Church of Aurora, address the press conference on the subject of gun control.
Photo by John Schoenwalter/The Colorado Statesman

Police believe the suspect in last week’s massacre used three weapons for the gruesome and bloodcurdling attack during a premiere of The Dark Night Rises, including a semiautomatic AR-15 rifle, a pump-action 12-guage shotgun and at least one Glock .40-caliber semiautomatic pistol. A fourth gun, another .40-caliber handgun, was found in the suspect’s car at the scene of the tragedy.

Rev. Jesse Jackson explains that our founding fathers did not intend for ordinary citizens to have as much armament as the militia.
Photo by John Schoenwalter/The Colorado Statesman

All four weapons were purchased legally in Colorado over a period of two months leading up to the shooting, according to multiple police sources. One of the handguns was purchased at a Gander Mountain store in Aurora, the other pistol and the shotgun came from a Bass Pro Shops in Denver, and the assault rifle was bought at a Gander Mountain in Thornton, according to those sources.

The suspect also allegedly purchased 3,000 rounds of handgun ammunition, 3,000 rounds for the semiautomatic rifle and 350 shells for the 12-guage shotgun — all over the Internet — according to authorities.

Police also said that the suspect obtained components for a tactical protective suit online, using the website TacticalGear.com. He purchased a combat vest, high-capacity magazine holders and a knife. In all, the gunman dressed head-to-toe in black anti-ballistic gear with a helmet, gas mask, throat-protector, tactical vest, pants and gloves. He also had in his possession gas canisters that he lobbed at the dazed and fearful crowd.

Authorities have not said how the shooter obtained explosive materials and equipment to rig his apartment with a series of booby traps that took investigators many hours to dismantle.

Given the shooter’s arsenal of equipment — enough to survive a firefight in a war zone, according to authorities — the debate has naturally turned to gun control. While McCann and Fields are still discussing how best to move forward, the two lawmakers say the theater shooting incident could provide the momentum needed to advance gun control legislation at the state Capitol next year.

“Hunters and ranchers and farmers; people who want to protect their homes in the city, that’s one thing, but a weapon designed to kill as many people as you can in a short period of time, I think we as a community need to have a discussion about, ‘Is that something we want in Colorado?’” said McCann, drawing upon her past experience as a Denver prosecutor and the first manager of safety for Denver under Mayor Wellington Webb.
Fields agreed, emphasizing the cost of such mass trauma incidents on society, pointing to public safety, health care and economic costs associated with deadly shootings.

“There’s consequences that we’re paying, and it would be reckless for me as a lawmaker to not look at what I can do to close the gap, because our gun laws are broken,” she said.

Eileen McCarron, spokeswoman for the Colorado Ceasefire Capitol Fund, said her organization is gearing up to work with lawmakers to advance their gun control agenda. The group met on Tuesday to discuss how to proceed.

At the top of McCarron’s list is banning assault weapons in Colorado, as well as limiting online ammunition and armament purchases, banning high-capacity magazines, and extending background checks to ammunition purchases. She would also like to establish a system of tracking the amount of weapons and ammunition sold to individuals within a time period to perhaps raise flags before an incident occurs.

“It is madness in this country that someone can go compile this high military armament and then 6,000 rounds of ammunition, and that this is all just totally legal — that’s frightening,” said McCarron.

She is angry and frustrated with Gov. John Hickenloope for having surprised many with his moderate approach to the gun control issue. The governor told CNN’s Candy Crowley on “State of the Union” on Sunday, “This person, if there were no assault weapons available, if there were no this or no that, this guy’s going to find something, right? He’s going to know how to create a bomb.”

McCarron believes that Hickenlooper had been a public advocate for gun control, having been a member of the Mayors Against Illegal Guns Coalition, which is co-chaired by New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, a vocal proponent of tougher gun control laws in the wake of the Aurora shooting.

Mayors Against Illegal Guns launched a campaign this week, along with survivors and family members of victims of the January 2011 Tucson, Ariz. shooting that seriously injured then-U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, demanding a plan of action from President Obama and Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney to reduce gun violence.

McCarron points out that after the Columbine High School massacre in 1999, even Republican Gov. Bill Owens supported tougher gun control in Colorado, pushing for legislation to require firearms dealers at gun shows to conduct the same background checks that licensed dealers regularly perform. The bill was part of a larger package of gun control measures at the time.

“Everyone I talked to is just appalled,” McCarron said of Hickenlooper’s comments. “Now to have a Democrat come out and say this… to have him come out and close the avenue off by what he’s saying, to give credence to all of the other sides of the argument, I was just very disappointed in that.”

The devastating shooting has left McCarron herself sad and depressed. Almost immediately after the shooting, she found her e-mail inbox piling up with messages from gun rights advocates blaming her and her group for the shooting. The argument is that if gun control advocates went away, then more people would be able to defend themselves.

“One guy goes, ‘I don’t know how you sleep at night,’” McCarron recalled of the e-mails she has received. “I am having trouble sleeping at night, but primarily because I’m thinking about what have I not done. I could have done more, and probably a lot of us are feeling that. Even though we work very hard, you start to think, ‘What else could I have done so that this didn’t happen?’ This shouldn’t happen.”

Would gun control have saved Aurora?

But Dudley Brown, executive director of Rocky Mountain Gun Owners, the largest lobbying organization for gun rights in Colorado, does not believe stricter gun control would have stopped the devastating shooting in Aurora. Brown, a known conservative, finds himself in the peculiar position of siding with Democrat Hickenlooper.

“The governor, not known for being conservative by any stretch of the imagination, said no gun control would solve this, and he’s right,” said Brown.

Brown points to a spike in gun sales since the Aurora shooting. Data collected this week from the Colorado Bureau of Investigation show that there was a 40 percent increase in criminal background checks from gun sellers over the weekend compared to the previous two weeks. Compared to July of last year, the numbers represent a nearly 60 percent increase. Brown believes the data indicates the will of the people.

“It’s clear that our citizens are voting on this concept of passing gun control to solve this, and they’re voting by going down to a gun shop…” said Brown. “No one wants to let innocents die because some idiot liberal has decided to ban guns in their business.”

The leader of the gun rights movement in Colorado believes that had more moviegoers had handguns in the Century 16 theater, fewer lives would have been lost and fewer injuries would have taken place.

“The only law regarding firearms that would have mitigated the damage would have been more citizens carrying concealed handguns. That’s it,” said Brown.

He shrugged off the notion that because the shooter was wearing body armor, and because the theater was dark and full of smoke from the gas canisters, that civilians firing on him would have accomplished little — or even potentially hit innocent bystanders.

“Even with body armor, a handgun round will cause significant damage, and of course you can shoot people in the legs,” said Brown. “Civilians use handguns every day to defend themselves around the country; law enforcement uses handguns every day to defend people, and so that’s it. That’s the solution.”

Rep. Kevin Priola, R-Henderson, agrees. He carried a bill this year, House Bill 1092, which would have allowed citizens to carry a concealed handgun in Colorado without a permit. The bill died in committee. Priola says he will carry gun rights legislation again next year, though he is not sure if it will be the same concealed carry bill. He says he will sponsor bills that “allow people to enjoy their Second Amendment right without restrictions.”

Priola points out that in the movie theater were several current and former military members, including two sailors and two airmen. Had those military members been allowed to carry concealed handguns into the movie theater, Priola believes, the outcome would have been very different.

“You need to have a well armed society that can protect itself… I thought it was sort of ironic how [service members] are equipped to protect themselves on foreign shores, but yet there’s so many restrictions on them being able to protect themselves in a movie theater, or a public place in their own country,” Priola said.

Debate goes national

What started in Aurora has quickly spiraled into a national debate on gun control, with advocates across the nation calling for reinstating a national ban on assault weapons. The ban expired in 2004.

Demonstrating that Colorado has become the epicenter of the debate, faith and political leader Rev. Jesse Jackson came to the suspect’s apartment building in Aurora on Thursday to advocate for tougher gun laws, starting with a ban on assault weapons. Jackson spoke before meeting with family members of victims.

“The massacre in Aurora is not just an incident, it’s a pattern…” Jackson said to a large group of reporters assembled outside the suspect’s apartment at 1690 Paris St. “There is a rising domestic terrorism threat to our wellbeing. Because of this act of terrorism, the movie theater is not open; there are empty places at the dinner table because of this massacre; there are some empty chairs in the classroom because of this massacre. And the fact is, he was able to get these weapons legally.”

Jackson was joined by a group of pastors from the Greater Metro Denver Ministerial Alliance, the Aurora Ministerial Alliance, and representatives from the NAACP. Also joining the group was Thomas Mayes, pastor of Living Water Christian Center Church in Aurora, who has been very active in consoling the community following the tragedy. High-profile local personal injury attorney Frank Azar also joined the group.

Responding to a question by The Colorado Statesman, Jackson acknowledged that it will be difficult to pass tougher gun laws in America, noting that even after Congress’ own Rep. Giffords was seriously injured in a mass shooting, gun laws in America still did not change. But Jackson is hopeful that Aurora can serve as the catalyst.

“At some point the cup runneth over…” mused Jackson, a former candidate for president. “Those who support more guns are driven by fear and not by hope. We must go forward by hope and not by fear.”

Both President Obama and Romney have been urged to join the gun debate following the recent shootings. Obama gave his most concrete thoughts on Wednesday night in New Orleans at a speech to the National Urban League. He said that while he believes in the Second Amendment and recognizes the traditions of hunting and gun ownership, there is still more that can be done, including stepped-up background checks in order to keep guns out of the hands of the mentally ill.

“I also believe that a lot of gun owners would agree that AK-47s belong in the hands of soldiers, not in the hands of criminals,” said Obama. “That they belong on the battlefield of war, not on the streets of our cities.”

Romney has said repeatedly that he does not believe additional gun control laws would “make all bad things go away.”

“I don’t happen to believe that America needs new gun laws,” he told NBC News in London from the site of the Olympics. “A lot of what this… young man did was clearly against the law. But the fact that it was against the law did not prevent it from happening.”

Carrying the gun control torch for Colorado on the national level is U.S. Rep. Diana DeGette, D-Denver, who said on Tuesday that she is pushing for legislation to ban high-capacity ammunition clips.

“Yes, the Second Amendment grants Americans the right to own a gun,” DeGette said in remarks during a press conference. “But the Second Amendment does not grant people the right to walk into a theater with a high-capacity ammunition clip and kill or maim scores of their fellow Americans.

“So today I call on Congress and our nation to finally have that conversation. The conversation that finally recognizes that it’s not about banning all guns; it’s not about taking people’s guns away; it’s about taking reasonable steps that will stop people from having guns only designed to kill many, many people in a short period of time,” DeGette continued.

U.S. Rep. Ed Perlmutter, D-Golden, also weighed into the debate, calling for more gun control. Speaking from Aurora on Sunday to CBS’s “Face the Nation,” Perlmutter said it is an issue on which Congress needs to act.

“Should we reinstate the assault weapons ban? I think we should, and I think that’s where it starts,” said Perlmutter. “We ought to be taking a look at how this guy was able to accumulate so much ammunition. He had enough ammunition for, like, a small army. There’s something wrong about that.”

Peter@coloradostatesman.com