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As Colorado Shooter Appears in Court, More Details on How He Obtained Weapons

July 23, 2012 at 12:00 AM EST
At a preliminary hearing, Colo. shooting suspect James Holmes remained silent and stoic. Gwen Ifill speaks with Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.), University of Denver's Dave Kopel and the Pew Research Center's Mike Dimock on whether shootings influence public opinion on issues such as gun control and gun safety.
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TRANSCRIPT

GWEN IFILL: The world got a look today at the man who allegedly gunned down scores of people in Aurora, Colo., on Friday. He appeared at his initial court hearing as police pieced together what led up to the assault in a movie theater.

MAN: Please be seated.

GWEN IFILL: It was the first time he had been seen publicly since Friday’s shootings, and James Holmes cut a bizarre figure, his hair dyed bright orange, his eyes dazed.

It was unclear if he was on medication, but the 24-year-old stared blankly or nodded off. And he never spoke as the judge explained the murder charges against him.

Afterward, District Attorney Carol Chambers said the state is considering asking for the death penalty. But she wants to hear from the victim’s family.

CAROL CHAMBERS, district attorney, Arapahoe County, Colo.: It’s the death penalty is sought, that’s a very long process that impacts their lives for years. And so they will want to have and we will want to get their input before we make any kind of a decision on that.

But many people attribute [shootings] to the acts of isolated individuals who really are kind of beyond the control of the system, so to speak, and that there's some skepticism that the gun laws or restricting access to guns would reduce that situation.Michael Dimock, Pew Research Center

GWEN IFILL: Holmes is accused of opening fire inside Aurora’s Century 16 theater on Friday. Twelve people were killed and 58 wounded. Seven remain in critical condition.

Police say Holmes opened fire with a semiautomatic rifle, but it jammed. So he used a shotgun and a pistol, a change that may have saved lives. Minutes later, he was arrested near his car behind the theater.

The investigation so far shows Holmes started buying guns at local stores two months before the shooting and purchased 6,000 rounds of ammunition online. Over the weekend, authorities disarmed numerous booby traps they found in Holmes’ apartment.

DAN OATES, police chief, Aurora, Colo.: Make no mistake, OK? This apartment was designed, I say, based on everything I have seen, to kill whoever entered it.

GWEN IFILL: The explosives and incendiary materials were later trucked away and destroyed. Officials at the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus were checking if Holmes had used his graduate student status there to obtain the explosives.

BISHOP JAMES CONLEY, Archdiocese of Denver: We have experienced a tragedy, but now is the time to grieve. Now is the time to heal.

GWEN IFILL: The morning began in earnest, as hundreds attended a Sunday vigil. President Obama flew into Aurora to visit with families of the victims at a hospital.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Most of the conversation was filled with memory. It was an opportunity for families to describe how wonderful their brother or their son or daughter was and the lives that they had touched and the dreams that they held for the future.

GWEN IFILL: The dead range in age from a 6-year-old girl to a 51-year-old father. One had been celebrating his birthday. Another shielded his girlfriend from the gunfire. One Navy veteran was killed, along with two active service members.

Carpenter Greg Zandis traveled from Aurora, Ill., to deliver 12 crosses he built, one for each person he died.

GREG ZANDIS, carpenter: The whole country needs to show them that we love them and we care about them.

GWEN IFILL: Visitors to the makeshift memorial across from the theater struggled to hold back tears.

WOMAN: Devastation. I mean, really, look at these images. That’s just a six-year-old little girl. You know? And this — this is just horrible for Colorado, for anyone.

GWEN IFILL: For now, the accused gunman wasn’t talking about the motive behind the killings or anything else. He’s to be formally charged next Monday. A trial could be a year away.

There is much known and much unknown about the Aurora shooting. But if James Holmes indeed had as much weaponry in hand as prosecutors say, the questions remain the same: What was legal? What wasn’t? And why?

Many of the answers boil down to policy, politics, and public opinion.

Joining us to sort through some of that is Congresswoman Jan Schakowsky, a Democrat from Illinois, Dave Kopel — Kopel, sorry — a constitutional law professor at the University of Denver. He’s also an associate policy analyst at the Cato Institute. And Michael Dimock, associate director at the Pew Research Center.

Mike, I want to start with you because we know that criminal violence is down, that gun ownership is down, but yet support for gun control is also down.

How do those things square?

MICHAEL DIMOCK, Pew Research Center: Well, it has been a long-term trend.

In the ’90s, most of the ’90s, as recently as ’99, you had support for gun control exceeding support for maintaining gun rights by more than 2-1. That eroded a bit in the early 2000s. But we have seen even a more dramatic change just within the last three or four years.

Our latest survey in April found 49 percent saying that the priority should be on protecting gun rights, 45 percent saying that the priority should be protecting gun control. The first time really those lines have crossed.

GWEN IFILL: I want to ask you this. Then I want to turn over to the other two and ask this question as well, whether this debate is really about gun violence or about gun ownership. I mean, how does it break down?

MICHAEL DIMOCK: Well, it’s interesting, because people react to these events very strongly.

I mean, half the public said they followed this very closely this weekend. It’s riveting, probably the biggest story of the year as of right now. But many people attribute it to the acts of isolated individuals who really are kind of beyond the control of the system, so to speak, and that there’s some skepticism that the gun laws or restricting access to guns would reduce that situation.

Only a handful attribute this to broader problems. And even among them, gun control is mentioned by fairly few.

GWEN IFILL: Congresswoman Schakowsky, what do you say about that?

REP. JAN SCHAKOWSKY (D-Ill.): Well, it seems to me that we don’t have to choose the rights of gun owners. Legislation to protect public safety and public health don’t have to restrict the rights of lawful gun owners.

But who in America thinks it’s necessary to buy 6,000 bullets online without any kind of restrictions whatsoever? The weapon that he had, with this high-capacity magazine that held 100 bullets, who really needs that? What civilian needs to have that kind of gun?

So, I think that we have — there are plenty of rights for gun owners. We’re not trying to take away all the guns. What we’re saying, as eight years ago, we all said, as recently as eight years ago, that those kinds of assault weapons, semi-assault weapons, are not necessary on the street. And we should take them off.

And Americans around the country have been traumatized, not just those in Colorado who are involved in this situation.

GWEN IFILL: Well, but…

REP. JAN SCHAKOWSKY: Go ahead.

GWEN IFILL: I’m sorry. I just wanted to bring Dave Kopel into the conversation.

What do you say to that?

DAVID KOPEL, University of Denver: Well, I would certainly agree with Rep. Schakowsky’s broadest point, which is that you can protect Second Amendment rights and have strong laws to protect those rights, and at the same time, you can also recognize that guns in the wrong hands are a real danger to everyone.

And you can enact laws that really complement Second Amendment rights by trying to keep guns out of the wrong hands.

But I don’t think anything that’s come out of this horrible crime here, for which President Obama really was a wonderful leader for the people of Colorado yesterday with his unifying and apolitical speech, we haven’t seen anything from this that tells us realistically about what new laws could be enacted.

For example, I understand that the people who don’t have any familiarity with firearms or don’t like them say, well, 6,000 rounds. Well — but the fact is, a competitive target shooter can often go through 6,000 rounds of ammunition a month during practice.

So if you had some kind of law that said, oh, every time somebody buys over 500 or 1,000 or whatever number you want to say of ammunition, that the federal government has to get notified, well, you wouldn’t find anything of interest because that’s such a common kind of thing to do.

And, also, all the more so not just for competitive target shooters, but because ammunition has gotten a lot more expensive over the last 15 years, it’s fairly common now for people to buy in bulk, to buy a carton of 500 or 1,000…

GWEN IFILL: But what do you…

DAVID KOPEL: … and save money in the long term, whether that’s on the Internet or from — in person from a big gun store.

GWEN IFILL: But what do you say about Congresswoman Schakowsky’s argument about whether competitive sports men or women need access to assault rifles?

DAVID KOPEL: Oh, that issue has been around for a quarter-century.

And the country fell for it for a while and then has long since moved beyond it.

GWEN IFILL: No, I…

DAVID KOPEL: But the fact is, no, that this is an issue where you’re talking about the cosmetics of the gun.

As one of the gun prohibition strategists said, people will think if it looks like a machine gun, it is a machine gun. The fact is that the AR-15 is the most popular rifle in the United States today. It fires just like every other gun.

If you press the trigger once, you get one bullet. It’s not a machine gun. And it’s popular because it is a versatile rifle that is used by, literally, millions of law-abiding people for hunting. It’s only good for deer. It wouldn’t be powerful enough for something larger, but for hunting, for self-defense and for target shooting.

GWEN IFILL: Congresswoman?

REP. JAN SCHAKOWSKY: What I wanted to say is that, you know, the gentleman used the word apolitical.

Let’s be real. This is one of the most political issues that we have. The National Rifle Association in many ways owns the United States Congress, spending over $7 million in the 2010 election cycle, close to $3 million on its lobbying activities.

It says that it will score legislation, meaning it will rate legislators on how they vote. So, any kind of a crazy bill, even one that says, in bankruptcy, $3,000 worth of weapons will be protected, passed the House of Representatives with over 300 votes, the threats that the National Rifle Association says that warped any kind of rational debate about gun safety legislation.

GWEN IFILL: Well, let me ask Mike Dimock about that, because I’m curious about whether they’re — whether this is the work, this debate really boils down to two lobbying arms fighting with each other or whether there is a common agreement among Americans about what the argument, what the agreement should be, what the middle ground should be.

MICHAEL DIMOCK: Yes, it’s hard to say.

I mean, as with many issues, most Americans have a gut reaction, whether it was health care or Social Security. They have an immediate sense of how they feel. But when you get into the details, you will find all sorts of gradations.

You will find very broad support for stricter background checks, for greater efforts to enforce existing laws, to try to make sure that people who have a history of any kind of mental illness are checked more carefully and so forth and so on.

You will find more support for banning so-called assault weapons than you will for banning handguns. You will see a big shading of how people break this down. And I think, for many people, this is an area of a lot of confusion. Many people don’t know all of these details.

GWEN IFILL: Well, also, is this something that changes depending on whether there was an event?

If you asked someone right after Virginia Tech, they might have a more emotional answer than they do in the long term.

REP. JAN SCHAKOWSKY: Well, and they should.

GWEN IFILL: Is there is a distinction?

Let me ask Mr. Dimock, and I will come back to you, Congresswoman.

MICHAEL DIMOCK: You know, surprisingly, we fond very little effect of these events.

While they are riveting and emotion and have an enormous social impact on people, we didn’t see the balance of opinion on gun control or gun rights change before and after the shooting in Tucson last year or before and after the Virginia Tech shooting. So the events themselves have not really been that pivotal.

GWEN IFILL: I want to ask — I want to ask the two of you a final, larger question here, which is whether people, when they think about public safety — and I will start with you, Mr. Kopel — when people talk about public safety, do they think that gun ownership enhances it or do they feel that gun ownership or gun use threatens it?

DAVID KOPEL: Well, the compromise we have come to in Colorado and really nationally — and it’s why the National Rifle Association has 68 percent approval among the American public, according to a Reuters poll — is that both of those things you said are right, that guns in the right hands enhance public safety.

And so it’s important to have laws to protect the right of people to carry handguns for lawful protection, and so that you don’t ban guns just based on cosmetics. And, of course, guns in the wrong hands really harm public safety.

And that’s why we have — regulate guns more strictly than anything else in this country. Guns are the only product in — consumer product in the United States where if you walk into a store to buy the product, the store owner has to call the police, the FBI or its state counterpart to get permission for every single sale.

So the reason I think Ms. Schakowsky’s agenda is not advancing further in Congress is that this country after 40 years of intense gun debate has come to a consensus that — where we have strong regulations and we have strong rights protection.

GWEN IFILL: Congresswoman, you get the final word.

REP. JAN SCHAKOWSKY: Well, first of all, I disagree.

I think most Americans do think that sensible gun safety legislation is important. But can you just imagine if those who were holding guns legally in that theater stood up, as some have suggested they should have, and started shooting at this shooter and we would have had a real shoot-out at the neighborhood theater?

I mean, these kinds of situations are real because of the proliferation of — of guns. And I think that these tragedies should — shame on us for not using these as opportunities to look at ways that we can make our streets and our — and our movie theaters and everywhere that people gather safer.

GWEN IFILL: Jan Schakowsky, Dave Kopel, and Mike Dimock, thank you all very much.

You can watch today’s full court appearance by James Holmes and the comments made after that by the district attorney on our website.