Gun Violence In Colorado: From Columbine To Aurora, Mass Shootings Reignite Gun Law Debate

Last Friday's horrific shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn. has reignited the gun control debate once again and some high-profile Democrats are saying that this could be a "tipping point" in passing meaningful legislation on stricter gun laws.

But, in a state like Colorado, which despite having the dubious distinction of being the home of two of the nation's worst mass shootings in recent history, it may be more difficult than it seems to sway public opinion in the Centennial State toward increased support for gun control.

Thirteen years ago, on the morning of April 20, 1999, Eric Harris, 18, and Dylan Klebold, 17, opened fire on their fellow classmates at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado killing 15 and wounding 24 with firearms which were illegally obtained by Klebold and Harris. Three of the weapons used were classified as assault weapons with ammunition loaded into high-capacity magazines, the largest of which could hold 52 rounds.

Then this year, Colorado was at the center of another mass shooting tragedy when a gunman wearing a gas mask and sheathed in head-to-toe body armor entered an Aurora movie theater during a midnight screening of "The Dark Knight Rises" killing 12 and injuring 70 others. Suspected shooter James Holmes, 24, is charged with the attack on the unsuspecting movie-going audience and in his possession police found two Glock pistols, a shotgun and an AR-15, a semiautomatic variation of the military's M-16 rifle -- all of which were purchased legally. Holmes spent months stockpiling thousands of bullets, firearms and ballistic gear without ever raising a red flag with authorities.

The shooting rampage at Columbine High School shocked the nation and briefly increased support for stricter gun laws which eventually eroded into more than a decade-long decline in support. Polls conducted in the wake of the Columbine shooting found increases of 6 to 8 percentage points nationally in support for stricter gun laws.

However, after the Aurora shooting, there was not a noticeable shift in public opinion nationally. Surveys by Pew Research and YouGov/Economist following the Aurora tragedy found little or no change in overall attitudes about gun laws.

In Colorado, attitudes appeared mixed following Aurora with August surveys from Public Policy Polling and New York Times/Quinnipiac/CBS showing that although 58 percent of Colorado voters favored a ban on high-capacity clips and magazines, only 38 percent of voters favored stricter gun laws and 50 percent saying that laws should remain the same.

Two months after the Aurora shooting, attitudes appeared to be staunchly opposed to stricter gun control, according to a September Denver Post survey which showed 56 percent of respondents in favor of protecting the right to own guns and only 39 percent in favor of controlling gun ownership. When asked the best way to reduce gun violence in the country, 64 percent favored stricter enforcement of existing laws to only 27 percent in support of stricter gun control laws.

According to FBI Uniform Crime data, in Colorado in 2011 there were 147 homicides and 50 percent of those involved guns -- that is up 12 percent since 2010 -- but Colorado's murder rate in 2011 was still at less than half that of the national average. And perhaps partially due to the increased rate of gun-related crime in the state, gun sales are surging. Despite a sagging economy, the number of background checks done for the purchase of a firearm has grown 58 percent since 2007, The Denver Post reports.

There have been several unusual spikes in gun sales in 2012 alone. A large spike in gun sales took place just days after the Aurora shooting, background checks for people wanting to purchase firearms in the state jumped more than 41 percent. And another sales spike occurred following the Jessica Ridgeway tragedy, according to the Colorado Bureau of Investigations.

Then during the recent Black Friday, CBI set a new record in the state processing over 4,000 background checks on people purchasing firearms -- that's nearly 1,000 more checks than were run in 2011 when CBI set a single-day record of checking 3,031 gun buyers, according to 9News. So busy was the CBI that the flood of new applications crashed the system twice on Black Friday.

But just this last weekend, as Sandy Hook shooting news spread, a new Colorado record was set yet again for single-day background check submissions for gun purchases, according to CBI data, The Denver Post reports.

Last Thursday, just a day before the Sandy Hook tragedy occurred, Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper said that "the time is right" for state lawmakers to consider gun control measures -- the strongest stance Hickenlooper has taken on the issue to date, the Associated Press reported.

"When you look at what happened in Aurora, a great deal of that damage was from the large magazine on the AR-15 (rifle)," Hickenlooper said. "I think we need to have that discussion and say, 'Where is this appropriate?'"

The AR-15 that Holmes purchased was banned in the US in 1994 under the Federal Assault Weapons Ban which expired in 2004. In the wake of the Aurora shooting, The Guardian reported that although shotguns and handguns have always been easy to obtain, the AR-15 would not have been as easy to obtain just 8 years ago, via The Guardian:

The manufacture and import of AR-15s and similar weapons, such as AK-47s, were banned in the US in 1994. There were also limits on the size of magazines that could be fitted, limiting them to holding no more than 10 bullets.

Those prohibitions fell away 10 years later, and attempts to revive them have failed in the face of objections from the powerful National Rifle Association allowing Holmes not only to purchase the powerful weapon but also to fit it with the magazine drum holding a large number of bullets.

Hickenlooper's statement from last week is quite different than his reaction just following the Aurora shooting where he more or less sidestepped the issue of gun control in Colorado. When asked on ABC's "This Week" on whether he should revisit the state's gun laws in the wake of the Aurora massacre, Hickenlooper said, "I'm sure that is going to happen, but I look at this, this wasn't a Colorado problem, this is a human problem, right?" Hickenlooper then added: "You know, I worry that if we got rid of all the guns and certainly we have so many guns in this country, we do have a lot more gun violence than many other countries -- but even if you didn't have access to guns, this guy was diabolical. Right? He would have found explosives, he would have found something else, some sort of poisonous gas, he would have done something to create this horror."

Aurora Mayor Steve Hogan, who appeared with Hickenlooper on the "This Week" segment, also placed blame on the shooter, rather than on the need for tighter gun laws.

Denver Mayor Michael Hancock, although a member of Mayors Against Illegal Guns, has remained relatively mum on gun control since the shooting, according to Reuters. "Our hearts are broken but we are determined to move forward together," Hancock said following the Aurora shooting. On gun law, his clearest statement immediately following Aurora was to essentially take the spotlight off guns and put it back on the shooter: "It makes sense to turn to the weapons but we must not forget the man behind the gun." And since the shooing Hancock has only backed away further from supporting stronger gun control. In an August interview, Hancock said he does not think the Aurora massacre should be used to push gun policy, via Westword:

"You know, that tragedy in Aurora, I would not use -- and the reason why I did not speak out about it -- I wouldn't use it as a bully pulpit for political [reach]," Hancock said when asked if he supports the coalition's ad campaign. "That suspect obtained those weapons legally. I certainly will stand firm against illegal guns... The reality is this: If we want to talk about how we avoid situations like Aurora, let's go to the heart of the problem and not the symptoms."

However, one Denver official did speak out on the need to discuss gun control -- police chief Robert White. "Gun polices are absolutely critical," White said to Westword in August. "I certainly value the right to bear arms, but I've yet to figure out the real purpose that certain firearms have. Assault weapons... they have no practical use. You can't use them for hunting. We're not soldiers in a war abroad... I have a lot of questions about assault weapons. What value do they have in our society, in an urban environment? I think they have very little value." Read more of White's sentiments at Westword.

Some high-profile Colorado lawmakers have also spoken out in favor of addressing gun control -- Rep. Ed Perlmutter, who represents Aurora, went on CBS News' "Face the Nation" just two days after the movie theater shooting occurred calling to reinstate the assault weapons ban.

"We ought to be taking a look at how this guy was able to accumulate so much ammunition," Perlmutter said. "He had enough ammunition for, like, a small army. There's something wrong about that." When asked why he spoke out so soon, Perlmutter said that although there is some political danger for him in doing so he answered, "This happened in my district, and these questions have to be addressed."

Just four days after the Aurora shooting, Rep. Diane DeGette called on Congress to ban the kinds of high-capacity ammunition magazines that the Aurora shooter used allowing him to shoot about 70 people in roughly two minutes, the Colorado Independent reported. DeGette, like Perlmutter, have been working toward stricter gun control their entire tenures in public office. "Yet here we are, 16 years later, and in the wake of another violent tragedy it's impossible to understand why an ordinary citizen can get a hold of a high-capacity magazine that can fire 100 rounds in 90 seconds," DeGette said in a press release.

The massacre in Newtown, Conn., which has already caused some politicians to reexamine their stances on gun control, could shift public opinion in a way that previous mass shootings have not, some early polling suggests.

A Washington Post/ABC News poll, released Monday, found that just over half of Americans saw the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary as a sign of broader problems rather than an isolated incident. That response reverses a trend that remained solid through the 2007 Virginia Tech shooting, the 2011 Tucson shooting, and the Aurora movie theater shooting earlier this year, each of which were viewed by a majority as isolated incidents.

The change encompassed the partisan spectrum, with most Democrats, Republicans and independents all viewing the Newtown shooting as indicating a wider issue.

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CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that the Aurora shooting occurred on the anniversary of the Columbine shooting. Columbine occurred on April 20, 1999 while Aurora occurred on July 20, 2012.



Five Years, 19 Mass Shootings, No Action