By Rick Jervis and John McAuliff, USA TODAY
The Colorado shooting rampage united the country in an outpouring of sympathy for the victims and rage for the alleged triggerman. It also has reignited one of the most divisive debates in the USA: whether Congress should enact greater gun control.
New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg in radio and TV interviews this week renewed calls for President Obama and GOP candidate Mitt Romney to make gun control an election issue. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie took a different tact, telling reporters that gun laws should be up to individual states and criticizing other leaders for raising the issue in the wake of the massacre.
Two bills circulating in Congress would ban high-capacity ammunition magazines, such as the 100-round drum used in Friday's attack. But passage of those bills - or stiffer bans on assault weapons - are not likely in the near future, says Rep. Carolyn McCarthy, D-N.Y., sponsor of the House bill. Powerful lobbying from the National Rifle Association, the largest pro-gun group, and other organizations has ground Congress to a halt on gun issues, she says.
"The atmosphere here on anything that has to do with guns, unfortunately, is a tough sell," McCarthy says. "But we can't keep letting this go. It's not getting any better."
On Tuesday, House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, said he would not use the shooting in Aurora, Colo., to push for any new gun laws, blaming the incident on "a deranged person" and aligning himself with President Obama. Jay Carney, Obama's press secretary, told reporters recently that the president wants to work with existing laws - not new ones - to keep weapons away from dangerous individuals.
"The president has made clear that he's not going to use this horrific event to push for new gun laws. I agree," Boehner said.
In Colorado,the number of background checks to buy guns jumped 43% in the days following the movie-theater shooting compared to the previous weekend, according to the Colorado Bureau of Investigation, which runs the checks. The 2,887 background checks done over the weekend were also 39% higher than the first weekend in July, according to the agency. The FBI said it does not have a comparable breakdown of national figures.
Similar increases were reported in the immediate aftermath of the 2007 Virginia Tech murders and last year's shooting rampage outside a Tucson-area supermarket, where six people were killed and 13 others injured, including Rep. Gabrielle Giffords.
Friday's shootings - and the threat of greater gun control stemming from them - are driving people into gun stores, said Luke O'Dell, spokesman for the Colorado-based National Association for Gun Rights. Gun owners are also filling up training courses in Colorado, he said.
"People take their self-defense seriously in Colorado," O'Dell said. "A tragedy like the murders in Aurora is often a catalyst to reminding people they need to be looking out for themselves."
The American public may also agree. In a poll taken in April by the Pew Research Center, 49% of Americans favored protecting gun owners' rights, compared with 45% who'd like to see more gun control. It was the first time in two decades that the majority of those polled favored gun rights over control, said Carroll Doherty, an associate director at the center.
It wasn't the fear of a crazed gunman that swayed public opinion, he says. Rather, it was Obama's 2008 election and concerns that gun rights would be curtailed under his administration.
"The idea of controlling gun ownership is seen by many as more government intervention," Doherty said. "There's a strong resistance to that."
At the core of the debate is the easy access James Holmes, the alleged shooter, had to high-power weaponry, including an AR-15 assault rifle, a 100-round drum magazine capable of shooting more than 50 rounds per minute and more than 6,000 rounds of ammo - all purchased legally at a sporting goods store or over the Internet. Holmes allegedly used that firepower to kill 12 moviegoers and injure 58 early Friday in a crowded theater, according to Aurora police.
Similar gun-control debates surfaced after the shootings at Columbine High School, Virginia Tech and Tucson, said Dennis Henigan, vice president of the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence. Little if any policy change resulted from those incidents, he said.
A 1994 federal ban on assault weapons that was allowed to expire in 2004 also would have kept the AR-15 rifle out of Holmes' hands, he said. There are no background checks for or amount limits on ammunition.
"This cannot be discussed in terms of an isolated shooting," Henigan said. "This is now a regular occurrence in American society."
Despite concerns that his election would lead to stricter gun control, Obama has been a solidly gun-friendly president, said John Rosenthal, co-founder of the Newton, Mass.-based Stop Handgun Violence. He hasn't banned assault weapons as promised during his campaign and, in 2010, ushered in a federal law allowing loaded handguns on national parks.
"He's done nothing to stem the flow of unrestricted access to guns," Rosenthal said.
Gun-rights advocates say most gun owners are peaceful and law-abiding and shouldn't be punished for horrific crimes, such as last week's shooting. In fact, the number of gun-related homicides in the USA has dropped by nearly half the past two decades, from 17,075 in 1993 to 8,775 in 2010, according to FBI statistics.
Suspects like Holmes, who allegedly booby-trapped his apartment with explosives and tripwires, would have found a way to carry out his murderous plot - with or without high-powered guns, O'Dell said . He blasted politicians like Bloomberg for using the killings as a platform to push an anti-gun agenda.
"There's a lot of concern by gun owners that the government will use these crises as justification to further encroach on their rights," he said.
John Velleco, an official with the pro-gun group Gun Owners of America, said the number of casualties in Friday's shooting may have been fewer if more people had been allowed to carry guns in the theater. "One thing proven to stop shootings during a mass shooting is an armed victim," he said.
Advocates seeking greater gun control say the theater shooting clearly shows a need to ban assault weapons and high-capacity magazines. Tom Mauser, whose son Daniel, 15, was killed in the Columbine shooting, said he's disappointed that Congress hasn't made more progress on gun control since then. Thirteen people, including the two gunmen, died at Columbine.
"We need to have a conversation about this," said Mauser, spokesman and board member of Colorado Ceasefire. "I think a lot of Americans aren't aware of these things, and the gun lobby would just rather we don't talk about it."
Contributing: Donna Leinwand Leger and Susan Davis in Washington, D.C.