Suspected shooter James Holmes legally purchased four weapons in the past two months, officials said.
The alleged gunman in the Aurora, Colo., theater massacre legally purchased two pistols, a semiautomatic rifle and a shotgun, 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 man police said was the gunman, 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 spoke on condition of anonymity. Holmes hadn’t committed any offenses that would have raised an alarm during required background checks, the official said.
Holmes bought one of the four guns — the first of two Glock pistols — May 22 at Gander Mountain in Aurora, according to the official.
As for the other weapons:
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• On May 28, he purchased a Remington 870 Express Tactical 12-gauge shotgun from Bass Pro Shops in Denver.
• On June 7, he bought a Smith & Wesson M&P .223-caliber semiautomatic assault rifle at a Gander Mountain store in Thornton.
• On July 6, he returned to the Bass store in Denver and bought another Glock pistol.
Larry Whiteley, a Bass Pro Shops spokesman, said records show that employees in the Denver store followed all federal rules in selling the weapons.
“Background checks, as required by federal law, were properly conducted, and (Holmes) was approved,” Whiteley said.
In a separate statement, Gander Mountain said the company operates “in strict compliance with all local, state and federal law regarding firearms ownership and are fully cooperating with this ongoing investigation.”
A second federal law-enforcement official said Holmes had a high-capacity ammunition magazine in the assault rifle.
The type of ammunition magazine Holmes is accused of using was banned for new production under the old federal assault-weapon ban, said Daniel Vice, senior attorney for the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence.
When the ban expired in 2004, gun manufacturers flooded the market with the type of high-capacity magazines Holmes used Friday, Vice said.
The shootings early Friday is renewing debate about gun laws, with advocates saying the killings show the need for stricter controls. Lawmakers haven’t clamped down on firearms after earlier shootings gripped public attention, including one in 2011 in Tucson, Ariz., in which six people were killed and 14 wounded, including Democratic U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords.
“You get this fervor in people when something like this happens,” said Ron Teck, a Grand Junction Republican who was in the state Senate when the Columbine High School shooting happened. “I would be really surprised if anything actually does happen.”
In the 1999 Columbine attack, two students shot 12 classmates and a teacher in Columbine High School near Denver 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.
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, controlled by Democrats.
After the theater attack, authorities seized a Glock G22 and a Glock G23, both .40-caliber pistols, the Remington 870 shotgun and the Smith & Wesson semiautomatic rifle, the federal official said.
The shooter used the shotgun, rifle and one of the Glocks in the shootings, Aurora Police Chief Daniel Oates said.
The state has no regulations that would prohibit those guns from being owned, said Robert Brown, the agent in charge of background checks at the Colorado Bureau of Investigation.
Colorado law prohibits local governments from restricting gun rights in several significant ways. Gun-rights organizations have successfully fought other efforts to restrict access to guns, including blocking a University of Colorado rule prohibiting concealed weapons on campus.
Colorado doesn’t require gun registration and there is no specific waiting period to buy a gun. Instead, purchases are approved as soon as U.S. authorities clear a list of 10 criteria, such as ensuring the buyer isn’t a fugitive or an illegal immigrant; the state conducts its own checks, including for restraining orders and juvenile arrests.
Colorado allows residents to carry concealed weapons. 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.
Congress should “prevent future tragedies” and pass stricter gun-control laws in response to the theater shootings, said Dan Gross, head of the Brady Center. The Washington, D.C.-based group describes itself as the country’s largest pro-gun-control lobby.
In the never-ending argument over gun control, tragedy can become a talking point. Luke O’Dell, a spokesman for the Rocky Mountain Gun Owners, a Colorado-based group that fights gun-control measures, said private gun restrictions may well had “tragic consequences” in the shootings.
He noted the theater chain that owns the Aurora movie house bans firearms on the premises. “Potentially, if there had been a law-abiding citizen who had been able to carry in the theater, it’s possible the death toll would have been less,” he said.
Material from The New York Times is included in this report.