The news of the horrifying armed assault in Aurora, Colo. — just a half-hour drive from the site of the Columbine High School shootings in 1999 — has a freakish resonance in a state that has long played an unsought role in the national debate over gun laws and firearm rights.
As a mountain state, Colorado has a history of broad support for Second Amendment rights. But in the years since the Columbine tragedy, the state’s lawmakers and voters passed some gun restrictions, including requirements governing the sale of firearms at gun shows, a law regulating people’s ability to carry concealed weapons and legislation banning “straw purchases” of weapons for people who would not qualify to buy them legitimately.
Still, James Holmes, 24, the former neuroscience student believed to be the lone gunman in Friday’s shootings in Aurora, armed himself with an assault rifle, a shotgun and a handgun to allegedly kill 12 and wound 59 others, many critically. All were weapons that would probably be legal for him to possess.
“The guy basically had normal guns,” said Eugene Volokh, an expert in constitutional law at the University of California, Los Angeles. Unless some new evidence of documented psychiatric disturbance emerges, Mr. Volokh added, “there’s no indication that, from his record, he is someone whom more restrictive screening procedures would have caught.”
Despite the changes over the past 13 years, Colorado law still prohibits local governments from restricting gun rights in several significant ways. Moreover, 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.
People in Colorado are allowed to carry firearms in a vehicle, loaded or unloaded, as long as the gun is intended for lawful uses like personal protection or protecting property.
Carrying a concealed weapon requires a permit, but Colorado is among those states whose rules on permits are relatively lax, said Heather Morton of the National Conference of State Legislatures. Colorado is one of 38 “shall issue” states. She explained that this meant “if a person complies with all of the requirements, then the state must issue a concealed weapons permit.” (By other measures, the number of states whose laws amount to “shall issue” is closer to 41.) Factors that might keep someone from being able to get a permit generally include felony convictions, mental illness or protective orders.
Other states have a tougher “may issue” law, which gives discretion to withhold a permit to an authority like the local sheriff or department of public safety.
Getting a concealed weapon permit in Denver is a relatively straightforward affair, according to materials put online by the Denver Police Department. Information forms and the application are available online; the process costs $152.50, payable by certified check or money order. Denver’s Web page describing the process warns, “Do not bring any weapon with you when you bring your application for review.”
The latest shootings will almost certainly lead to efforts to tighten gun laws. The Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence issued a statement that laid the blame on lax gun laws: “The horrendous shooting in Aurora, Colo., is yet another tragic reminder that we have a national problem of easy availability of guns in this country.”
On his weekly radio appearance Friday morning, Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg of New York called for the presidential candidates to make gun issues a part of their campaigns.
Yet another tragedy is not likely to shift the national debate over guns, said David Kopel, an adjunct professor at the Denver University law school and the research director of the Independence Institute, a libertarian organization in Denver. He noted that gun violence did not seem to bring about national restrictions on gun rights.
“The gun prohibition people tried to use Gabrielle Giffords and the Trayvon Martin case to get their cause going again, and weren’t particularly successful with that,” he said.
At the state level, he added, having fought pitched battles over gun rights since the 1980s, “we’re at a reasonably well settled point,” and “the legislature is not that interested in opening it up again.”
Mr. Volokh said the fragmentary information available so far about Mr. Holmes and the attack did not make a strong case for reform.
“The only weapons-control solution that could do anything about this kind of murder would be a total ban on guns,” he said.
“It’s hard to prevent someone who is really bent on committing a crime from getting them,” he added, and “it’s unlikely that gun laws are going to stop him.”
In the never-ending argument, 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 have had “tragic consequences” in the shootings.
He noted that the theater chain that owns the Aurora movie house bans firearms on the premises, and said that if other patrons had been legally able to carry weapons, the death toll might have been less. Mr. O’Dell also said that Mayor Bloomberg’s call for a discussion of gun issues was “exploiting the blood of these innocent victims to advance his political agenda.”