James Holmes, the man charged with gunning down a dozen people in a Colorado movie theater, was able to buy 6,000 rounds of ammunition over the Internet in a relatively short period of time. No questions asked.
His relative ease at obtaining more than enough ammo to supply an Army infantry squad going into combat prompted two Democratic legislators to announce they planned legislation to make it more difficult to buy that many bullets that quickly.
But the effort by US Senator Frank Lautenberg (D) of New Jersey and US Rep. Carolyn McCarthy (D) of New York faces a tough struggle in Congress, which has shown little interest in passing new gun control legislation. Despite the public’s abhorrence over the July 20 shootings, which killed 12 and also wounded 58, support for gun owner rights remains relatively high.
Holmes allegedly used a civilian version of the military’s M-16 rifle with a 100-round drum magazine, a shotgun and two .40 caliber semi-automatic handguns in the massacre.
Called the Stop Online Ammunition Sales Act, the idea behind the legislation is that federally licensed gun and ammunition dealers would have to alert the police that an unlicensed individual is buying a lot of ammo. What will the police do?
As much as anything Senator Lautenberg sees them as a deterrent: a policeman calling to ask why someone is buying thousands of rounds of ammo might become suspicious if someone gives evasive answers.
"I want them to be real nasty,” says Sen. Lautenberg, who, along with Rep. McCarthy, is known for his anti-gun efforts in Washington.
Lautenberg and McCarthy both cited a report that Mr. Holmes had called a gun range to inquiry about shooting there. They said the owner of the range thought Holmes sounded unusual and told his staff to deny him access. The legislators said this showed why face-to-face contact was important in gun sales.
Other parts of the proposed legislation include a requirement that anyone selling ammunition must be federally licensed. Ammo dealers would be required to maintain records. And anyone buying ammunition who is not a licensed dealer would present a photo ID at the time of purchase—something the legislators say would effectively ban online or mail order purchases of ordinance by civilians.
After the attack, a Pew Research poll found 46 percent of Americans thought it was more important to protect American’s rights to own guns while 47 percent felt it was more important to control who owns them. Republicans favored the right of gun ownership by 70 percent while 67 percent of Democrats favored ownership control.
Last week, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D) of Nevada said the Senate’s agenda was too packed to consider any gun control legislation. When asked about next year, he replied, “Nice try.” It’s also unlikely the Republican-dominated House would take up anything similar.
Congressional leaders aren’t the only ones reluctant to consider gun control in an election year. Last Thursday the White House said it wouldn’t push for any new legislation. Instead, President Obama says existing laws need to be better enforced. White House spokesman Jay Carney says Obama would still like to see a ban on military-type assault rifles reinstated— that ban expired in 2004—but would not push for legislation.
Nevertheless, Sen. Lautenberg says he has had some success in the past including a 1996 law that made it illegal for anyone convicted of the misdemeanor crime of domestic violence to own a gun.
“Everyone said it couldn’t be done,” he says. As for Obama, he says: “I believe the President believes in safety, he just needs to hear from his constituents.”
The two legislators will get a better sense of how Congress feels on Tuesday when they return to Washington to add co-sponsors.
Online ammunition sales became legal in the 1986 after the passage of the McClure-Volkmer Act, also known as the Firearm Owners Protection Act.
A spokesman for Ammotogo.com, a large online ammunition dealer in Brenham, Texas that also sells incendiary rounds, said no one was available to discuss the proposed restrictions. A voice mail left with Bulkammo.com was not returned. A spokesman at outdoor goods giant Cabela’s, based in Sidney, Neb., did not immediately return phone calls.
The Gun Owners of America, which lobbies against restrictions, says it’s not surprised by the effort by Lautenberg and McCarthy to enact legislation. “The bottom line is they don’t like guns,” says John Velleco, director of federal affairs at the Springfield, Va. organization.
Rep. McCarthy has two other gun control proposals before Congress. One of them would ban the sale of high capacity magazines that hold as many as 100 rounds of ammunition at a time. Another would require a background check on all gun buyers, closing what is known as the gun show loophole, which allows individuals to buy guns from a private dealer without a background check.
The effort to restrict the sale of bulk ammunition, Velleco says, is just an effort to ban guns.
“They (Lautenberg and McCarthy) would never admit that if there was an armed person in the movie theater in Aurora, it might have stopped the attack from escalating,” he says.