Five Things Congress Could Do In Response To The Aurora Theater Shootings

A breakdown of the gunman's gear from the Denver Post

In the fallout to the Dark Knight Rises shootings in Aurora, Colorado, the debate over gun control has been sharply divided. President Obama and Mitt Romney have refused to take a stance on, or even really address, gun regulation efforts.

There are a handful of Members of Congress are trying to build momentum for greater federal gun regulation. Reps. Carolyn McCarthy (D-NY) and Diana Degette (D-CO), as well as Sens. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ) and Bob Menendez (D-NJ) held a press conference today on the topic, saying they aren’t afraid to stand up to the National Rifle Association. But, for the most part, Democrats and Republicans alike, especially those in leadership, have kept their lips sealed.

Some say now is not the time for gun legislation — that the country is still grieving — but with the violence guns can cause on the front of the public’s mind, maybe it’s the best time to start a conversation. Here are five ideas for legislation Congress could enact to help limit gun violence:

1. Regulate ammunition sales. “Everything that the [Colorado theater shooting] suspect did was legal,” says Andy Pelosi of States United to Prevent Gun Violence, “Which is scary, that you can acquire that type of firepower. I think we need to take a hard look at ammunition sales.” Currently, criminals can legally get their hands on high-capacity gun magazines and armor-piercing bullets over the Internet. Such ammunition is not needed for hunting, and unnecessary for nearly any exercise in self defense. In fact, as New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg pointed out, those bullets are most dangerous for police officers. Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ) has committed to reintroducing legislation that would regulate such ammunition clips.

2. Increase mental illness reporting. After the horrible shooting at Virginia Tech, the state changed the structure of reporting mentally ill patients to the gun registry, including those who seek outpatient mental health services instead of just those who have been committed. Just four years out from when the law was passed, the number of mentally ill people who are blocked from obtaining a firearm in Virginia doubled. Other states haven’t been so vigilant. In fact, many states are incredibly slow to report even those mentally ill people who check in for inpatient services.

3. Background checks, every time. Gun law advocates know that the shooting in Colorado isn’t an isolated incident. Pelosi told ThinkProgress that “30 people are killed a day from guns, and many of those are purchased illegally.” Mayor Bloomberg has called on legislators to close loopholes regarding background checks, especially at gun shows. The gun show loophole and private sale loophole allow people to circumvent the regular requirements to check on the mental health and criminal record of gun purchasers. Only 17 states have such laws in effect (Colorado is one — they closed the loophole by ballot initiative in 2000), but Congress has taken no federal action to follow suit.

4. Restrict mail-order sales, step-up reporting. From 1968 until 1986, ammunition was regulated, and the mail order sale of bullets was illegal. Then, the NRA lobbied to have the law changed. When the Mcclure Volkmer Act passed, mail order sales were legalized, record-keeping requirements were repealed, and ammunition was deregulated. That was before the Internet age anonymous online ordering. Now, someone can purchase 6,000 rounds of ammunition in just a “few keystrokes.” The alleged gunman in Colorado never came face-to-face with a salesman when he bought his bullets and ballistic gear. However, a gun range owner described a “bizarre” encounter over the phone with the suspect that prompted the man to bar him from using the gun range. In the age of Internet anonymity, there are less opportunities for someone to monitor erratic behavior or sense ulterior motives.

5. Ban assault weapons. The alleged gunman in the Aurora theater used a gun that, until 2004, was illegal. That’s when Congress allowed the assault weapons ban to expire, opening the market up for military-style assault firearms. Such military-style guns (the Aurora gunman’s is the civilian equivalent to the military’s M-16) are designed to be concealed. They also have a much higher ammunition capacity. Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) has called on her colleagues to reinstall this ban.

Left to their own devices, people with severe mental troubles who want to hurt others will usually find a way to do so. The government will never be able to prevent every incident, every place in the country from happening every time. But there are certainly ways that the government is able to limit the loss of life, help the troubled perpetrators, and ensure that psychopaths cannot have absolute free reign — all without taking away the right of an average, sane citizen to own a firearm.

“The vast majority of Americans, including those who are members of the NRA, support common-sense safety reforms like background checks for all gun purchasers,” said Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-VA) today. “After Aurora, Virginia Tech, Columbine, Ft. Hood, and Tucson surely America is ready to have a conversation about how we can reduce the number of gun deaths in our nation.”