Under the U.S. Supreme Court: Gun control in the post-Aurora world

MICHAEL KIRKLAND, Senior UPI Legal Affairs Correspondent
Accused movie theater shooter James Holmes (left) makes his first court appearance at the Arapahoe County Courthouse with his public defender Tamara Brady on July 23, 2012 in Centennial, Colorado. According to police, Holmes committed one of the worst mass shootings in American history, killing 12 people and injuring 58 when he opened fire on a movie theater showing the premier of 'The Dark Knight Rises'. UPI/RJ Sangosti/Pool
Accused movie theater shooter James Holmes (left) makes his first court appearance at the Arapahoe County Courthouse with his public defender Tamara Brady on July 23, 2012 in Centennial, Colorado. According to police, Holmes committed one of the worst mass shootings in American history, killing 12 people and injuring 58 when he opened fire on a movie theater showing the premier of 'The Dark Knight Rises'. UPI/RJ Sangosti/Pool | License Photo

WASHINGTON, July 29 (UPI) -- In the wake of the horrific tragedy in Aurora, Colo., a crescendo of voices is calling for some new kind of gun control to put a stop to such attacks.

But even though the U.S. Supreme Court has left some wiggle room for regulation in its most recent gun control cases, there remains the question of political will.


Most movers and shakers seemingly wouldn't touch the issue with a 10-foot pole.

Little more than a week ago, a lone gunman in black attacked the audience at the Century Aurora 16 movie theater during a showing of the new Batman movie, "The Dark Knight Rises," killing 12, including a 6-year-old girl, and wounding 58.

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Police said the suspect James E. Holmes, 24, who gave up immediately after the shootings, was wearing body armor, a gas mask and a helmet, and was armed with an AR-15 semi-automatic rifle, a 12-gauge shotgun and a .40-caliber semi-automatic handgun.

Police said Holmes purchased four guns at local shops and 6,000 rounds of ammunition over the Internet in the past 60 days. Holmes also allegedly purchased multiple magazines for the assault rifle, including a 100-round drum magazine.


All without any red flags going to law enforcement.

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While President Obama and likely Republican presidential rival Mitt Romney made comforting noises after the massacre, an editorial in the New York Daily News exploded on the blogosphere like a grenade.

"The police chief in Aurora, Colo., said he is confident that massacre gunman James Holmes acted alone. The police chief was dead wrong," the editorial said.

"Standing at Holmes' side as he unleashed an AR-15 assault rifle and a shotgun and a handgun was Wayne LaPierre, political enforcer of the National Rifle Association.

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"Standing at Holmes' side as he sprayed bullets and buckshot into a crowded movie theater were Barack Obama and Mitt Romney, a president and a would-be president, who have bowed to the NRA's dictates and who responded to the slaughter Friday with revolting, useless treacle."

The opinion piece was picked up by a number of political blogs, extending its readership.

An editorial in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette was almost as indicting.

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"There's a sickening monotony to mass shootings in America. They happen so often that we've grown to expect them," the editorial said. "Countless lives would be saved if Congress had the backbone to spit in the eye of the National Rifle Association and say no one needs the kind of fire power as troops in the battlefield. Our Second Amendment right to bear arms would not be infringed.


"Presidents may fear the NRA and members of Congress may cower in its shadow, but it's time for good Americans to pry the group's cold, powder-stained trigger-finger off our right to live without fear."

Rep. Earl Blumenauer, D-Ore., was one of the few in Congress to speak out.

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"I find it appalling that we as citizens have enabled Congress to act in a spineless fashion, to be taken over in the area of gun safety by the NRA, that we refuse to deal with something that has serious, law-enforcement implications so that we alone in the developed world are most at risk for random gun violence," he said on the House floor, The Hill newspaper reported.

New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg also called for Obama and Romney to say, "Yes they felt terrible, yes it's a tragedy, yes we have great sympathies for the families, but it's time for this country to do something."

Romney didn't address the issue of gun control in a post-Aurora world.

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Obama White House spokesman Jay Carney tried to come down on both sides, saying the president "believes we need to take steps that protect Second Amendment rights of the American people, but that ensure that we are not allowing weapons into the hands of individuals who should not, by existing law, obtain those weapons."


He said Obama believes "we can take steps to keep guns out of the hands of people who should not have them under existing law. And that's his focus right now."

The Clinton-era ban on the purchase of semi-automatic assault weapons, porous for political reasons, and the ban on "large capacity ammunition feeding devices" expired in 2004. A Democratic majority Congress elected in 2006 chose not to renew it.

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Instant background check restrictions on federally licensed dealers are still in place, but there are no restrictions on private sellers.

The NRA Web site made no mention last week of the Colorado shootings. Using the site's search engine for "Aurora" brings up old videos about citizens using guns to defend themselves. Searching for "Holmes" yields no results whatsoever.

But the NRA's special Web site,, continues the same prediction it's been touting since before the 2008 election -- "Obama would be the most anti-gun president in American history."

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The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled twice in the last four years that the Second Amendment to the Constitution contains a personal right to bear arms, both by a 5-4 majority along the high court's ideological fault line.

In 2008's District of Columbia vs. Heller, the court's five conservatives struck down the capital's gun control law. The law banned handgun possession by making it a crime to carry an unregistered firearm and prohibiting the registration of handguns. It separately mandated that no one could carry an unlicensed handgun, authorized the police chief to issue one-year licenses, and required residents to keep lawfully owned firearms unloaded and dissembled or bound by a trigger lock or similar device.


Writing for the majority, Justice Antonin Scalia said, "We hold that the district's ban on handgun possession in the home violates the Second Amendment, as does its prohibition against rendering any lawful firearm in the home operable for the purpose of immediate self-defense."

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The Second Amendment says, "A well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed."

Two years later, the same narrow majority struck down Chicago's handgun ban. The case asked whether the 14th Amendment, which applies the Bill of Rights to the states, protects the Second Amendment right to bear arms in the states.

"Our decision in Heller points unmistakably to the answer," Justice Samuel Alito wrote in the narrow majority opinion in McDonald vs. Chicago. "Self-defense is a basic right, recognized by many legal systems from ancient times to the present day, and in [2008's] Heller, we held that individual self-defense is 'the central component' of the Second Amendment right. ... Explaining that 'the need for defense of self, family and property is most acute' in the home ... we found that this right applies to handguns because they are 'the most preferred firearm in the nation to "keep"' and use for protection of one's home and family.'

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"Thus, we concluded, citizens must be permitted 'to use [handguns] for the core lawful purpose of self-defense.'"

Both Scalia and Alito, in their opinions, cited historical evidence of the right to bear arms. Ironically, neither mentioned that most iconic of gun control cases, the "Gunfight at the O.K. Corral," when in 1881 the lawmen Earps and Doc Holliday tried to enforce Tombstone, Ariz.'s ban on carrying weapons.

But Scalia left open a big window for government gun control.

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"Like most rights, the Second Amendment right is not unlimited," he wrote in the syllabus of his opinion. "It is not a right to keep and carry any weapon whatsoever in any manner whatsoever and for whatever purpose: For example, concealed weapons prohibitions have been upheld under the [Second] Amendment or state analogs. The [Supreme] Court's opinion should not be taken to cast doubt on longstanding prohibitions on the possession of firearms by felons and the mentally ill, or laws forbidding the carrying of firearms in sensitive places such as schools and government buildings, or laws imposing conditions and qualifications on the commercial sale of arms."

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