Colorado Theater Shooter Carried 4 Guns, All Obtained Legally

With 12 dead and 58 injured, attention turns to Colorado's gun laws and how the alleged shooter 24-year old James Holmes obtained his arsenal

  • Share
  • Read Later
Thomas Cooper / Getty Images

Police search what is believed to be the car of James Holmes, the suspect of a shooting in a movie theater, outside the Century 16 movie theater July 20, 2012 in Aurora, Colorado.

After every horrific crime involving the loss of innocent lives, a substantial amount of reaction includes the question: “How could this happen?” While gun control advocates have effectively taken up their own arms against the Second Amendment in the wake of the movie theater attack, Aurora Police Chief Dan Oates put to rest all questions of legality about the weapons used by James Holmes in the attack — even at the risk of sounding like a broken Speak-and-Spell:

“All the weapons that he possessed, he possessed legally,” Oates said at the Friday evening press conference. “And all the clips that he possessed, he possessed legally. And all the ammunition that he possessed, he possessed legally.”

(MORE: Who Is Suspect James Holmes?)

While it does take, primarily, a particularly deranged person to shoot up a crowded theater during one of the most anticipated movie premieres in recent memory, it also takes some serious firepower.

James Holmes had no shortage of that. When police apprehended him outside the Century Aurora 16 theater Friday morning, Holmes had four guns on him. He was carrying:

– An AR-15 assault rifle

– A Remington 12-gauge 870 shotgun

– Two 40-caliber Glock handguns

Three of those weapons, including the shotgun and the assault rifle, he brought into the theater, according to Aurora Police Chief Dan Oates. A single shooter with three high-powered guns: It’s hardly shocking that the massacre took the lives of 12 and injured 58 others. During a press conference Friday morning, Oates couldn’t even put a number on the shots Holmes fired. The chief admitted it was beyond his team’s scope of calculation, limiting his confirmation only to “many, many rounds.”

The massacre has already reignited the debate on gun control, particularly in Colorado. How was one man allowed to amass four high-powered weapons? But a look at the Colorado laws seems to indicate, at least on the surface, that Holmes was within the law in his gun possession, according to two statutes:

– The state of Colorado prohibits gun registration [CRS 29-11.7-102].

– Colorado allows a person to carry a firearm in a vehicle, either loaded or unloaded. Handguns (ones with barrels under 12 inches) are allowed in homes, businesses, or cars, as long as they’re not concealed[C.R.S. 18-12-105(2)].

(MORE: Aurora, Colorado: Portrait of a Suburb)

It’s thought that Holmes concealed the weapons while bringing them into the movie theater, a presumed violation of the law, as he didn’t have a concealed weapons permit according to information obtained by TIME. But Professor Richard Collins of the University of Colorado Law School says he could have almost certainly obtained one had he wished to: “If he’s not a felon, if he’s of age and there’s no indication that he’s mentally ill, then the sheriff must give him a permit.” This comes thanks to Colorado’s “shall issue” law, meaning that the state must issue a weapons permit if the person complies with all the requirements – and Holmes had no police record aside from a traffic ticket.

Oates said Friday night that Holmes had purchased 6,000 rounds of ammunition on the Internet. He purchased his four guns at area gun shops, the first of which, a Glock, he acquired in May at Gander Mountain, a national chain of outdoor retailers. Six days later, he went to a local Bass Pro Shops to purchase a shotgun. Between the two stores, over the next two months, he would also buy the AR-15 and the Remington. “Background checks, as required by federal law, were properly conducted, and he was approved,” Larry Whiteley, a Bass Pro Shops spokesman, said in a statement.

The AR-15 assault rifle is the largest gun Holmes used, though it’s a gun widely distributed by many manufacturers and available at many sporting-goods stores. He is thought to have purchased and used an aftermarket high-capacity magazine for the assault rifle, a clip capable of launching “50 to 60 rounds, even if it was semiautomatic, within one minute,” Oates said. But this, too, was legal – a prior ban on such magazines, under the federal assault weapon ban, expired in 2004.

(PHOTOS: Scenes from Aurora: Aftermath of the Theater Massacre)

In Colorado, gun legislation faces a battle of state vs. local legislators. The home-rule cities such as Aurora that populate the state are permitted by the Colorado state constitution to govern themselves, which creates a constant tension with the state. “The battle is whether the home-rule cities have the right to have tougher laws than the state, and it’s a matter before the courts. The outcome is uncertain,” Collins said. It’s even uncertain which law takes precedence. “For example, the city of Denver has a law forbidding assault rifles of a certain sort,” Collins said. “But Aurora, a separate home-rule city adjacent to Denver, has no such laws. So the assault weapon was not illegal.”

While pundits are focusing on whether the restrictions are too lax, it’s unlikely any sort of additional oversight, aside from the background checks that were done, would have raised a red flag. “The guy basically had normal guns,” Eugene Volokh, an expert in constitutional law at the University of California, Los Angeles, told the New York Times. While guns wouldn’t have been allowed inside the private premises of the Century Aurora 16 movie theater, “It’s hard to prevent someone who is really bent on committing a crime from getting them,” Volokh said. “It’s unlikely that gun laws are going to stop him.”

Which means this incident becomes just one more in Colorado’s legacy of stunning gun violence. Thirteen years ago, international attention focused on another Denver suburb, just 20 miles across town, after a similarly shocking massacre. When Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold unloaded two shotguns and two handguns on Columbine High School, killing 13 and injuring 21, support for stricter gun laws initially spiked but eventually cooled. “I’m fairly confident no changes will be made in the laws after this incident,” Collins said bluntly. “Columbine didn’t.”

MORE: The Mindset of a Shooter’s Parents