Following the shooting in Aurora, Colorado, the national debate regarding gun control has flared up once more. After James Eagan Holmes killed 12 people and wounded 58 others using a semi-automatic rifle, a shotgun and two pistols, many commentators and some policymakers are arguing that gun control laws need to be tougher. Unfortunately, even the toughest regulations currently found in the United States could not have prevented the Aurora shooting.
Of all the states in the nation, California has the most restrictive gun laws, as ranked by the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence. The state requires gun sales to be processed through a licensed dealer with a background check, forces handgun purchasers to obtain a license and bans all assault weapons. Even if Colorado had all of California’s gun laws, the Aurora shooting would not have simply been averted.
All four guns used by Holmes in the Aurora shooting were legally purchased from Bass Pro Shops and Gander Mountain. Although firearms dealers in Colorado do not need to obtain a license from the state, Bass Pro Shops and Gander Mountain are both national chains with locations in California or other states that similarly require dealers to be licensed. Thus, had Colorado required Bass Pro Shops and Gander Mountain to be licensed, chances are they both would have done so and Holmes would still have legally purchased his weapons.
Like California, Colorado requires weapons purchasers to submit to a background check, with both states denying sales to those with a criminal record; Holmes had none. California also restricts those with a history of mental illness from purchasing firearms; although Holmes had seen a psychiatrist at the University of Colorado, where he was a Ph.D. student in neuroscience, it is unlikely that this would have barred him from purchasing a firearm as he was neither committed nor deemed mentally unfit by a court. The standard criteria by which background checks prevent people from buying weapons would not have applied to Holmes.
California requires those purchasing a handgun to first obtain a safety certificate and perform a “safe handling demonstration”; the former stipulates that applicants be at least 18 and pass a written test, while the latter obliges them to demonstrate basic handgun operation. Considering that Holmes was 24 at the time of purchase, was a former Ph.D. student and emptied at least three clips — demonstrating some proficiency with a handgun — in that Aurora movie theatre, there’s a good chance he would have qualified for a handgun license had Colorado required one.
Ban on Assault Weapons
Although California prohibits anyone from possessing an assault weapon, that category does not include any of the guns used by Holmes during the Aurora shooting, including the Smith & Wesson M&P15, a semi-automatic rifle. At the most, California’s restriction on large magazines would’ve have reduced the M&P15’s capacity from 25 rounds to 10, but the gun itself would have been identical in every other way — so much so that Smith & Wesson actually manufactures a California-compliant version of the same rifle. Although Holmes outfitted the weapon with a drum magazine capable of holding 100 rounds, it reportedly jammed very quickly, rendering it useless early on. Thus, a California-style ban on large magazines would have, at best, decreased the capacity of the one weapon which malfunctioned anyway.
The Impossibility of Prohibition
More extreme gun control advocates might not argue for greater regulation along the lines described above, but for the outright prohibition of firearms. The shortcomings of this policy can be seen in every other prohibition campaign, including temperance and the War on Drugs: overtaxing the penal system with “criminals” who have harmed no one; selective enforcement usually targeting the poor; increased interest in the thing being banned, a la the Streisand effect; creation of a black market empowering criminals and encouraging organized crime; and, ultimately, the failure to eliminate access to the thing being controlled.
Events like the Aurora shooting seem to demand action. The feeling is that we must do something to prevent such a tragedy from occurring ever again. But in examining the details of the event and of the proposed solutions, the inherent issues are revealed to be more complex than the longstanding debate between gun control advocates and opponents could possibly allow for. It’s unsurprising when considering their pre-packaged answers against the question ultimately posed by all shootings: What drives a man to wantonly murder another?