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News Opinion Editorial

If Colorado shooting can't prompt a conversation about gun control, what will?

Sitting there in an Arapahoe County District Court room with his bright orange-red hair, his eyes downcast and manner withdrawn, James Eagan Holmes didn't have much to say in his first court appearance Monday morning. There was precious little to reveal what could possibly have caused the 24-year-old graduate student in neuroscience to kill a dozen people and wound 58 others in a crowded Colorado movie theater last week, as police allege.

There is no rational justification for such behavior, of course, and even knowing whether it was the result of delusion or sickness, madness or uncontrollable rage probably won't produce much comfort for the victims, their families or their fellow Americans. What's been revealed so far about the alleged perpetrator (chiefly that he is intelligent and has no criminal record) suggests his behavior could never have been predicted.

What we do know more concretely about the incident, however, raises serious questions about whether Colorado or the rest of the country has done enough to prevent such tragedies from taking place. Surely, it is time to have a public conversation about whether the U.S. ought to adopt some reasonable restrictions on the availability of certain types of firearms, high-capacity magazines and ammunition that enabled the Aurora tragedy and similar shootings.

Yes, we're talking about "gun control" — the two words Congress and the White House dare not speak in an election year. How disappointing that President Barack Obama, while clearly comfortable in his role as consoler-in-chief to those who lost loved ones over the weekend, is unwilling to take action to make Americans a little bit safer from the epidemic of gun violence. Such is the clout of the National Rifle Association and the firearms industry.

Mr. Holmes purchased a staggering 6,000 rounds of ammunition over the Internet in the same manner anyone might have purchased a best-seller or a pair of headphones. One of the three weapons he used in the attack was an AR-15 semiautomatic assault-style rifle that was banned from sale in this country in 1994, a restriction that was allowed to expire eight years ago. He also allegedly had in his possession a 100-round magazine and wore tactical SWAT gear.

Would placing some restrictions on the purchase or ownership of any of those items have prevented the perpetrator from hurting people in a crowded theater? Not definitively, perhaps, but it surely would have made it far more difficult. Requiring people to pass a driver's test does not prevent them from disobeying the rules of the road either, but it makes it less likely. How is it that we are willing to at least explore placing some limits on kids buying large sugary drinks in light of the obesity epidemic but do not dare question whether easy access to an assault rifle that can fire 70 rounds per minute is somehow in the public interest?

We know what happens next. The usual suspects will be heard from on this issue making their usual arguments. Already, some gun rights supporters have made the ludicrous suggestion that the theater goers would have been far safer had they or their fellow patrons been armed — as if a fire fight in the middle of a crowded theater with a man wearing body armor would have been a far more desirable circumstance. But ultimately, nothing will come of the outrage so many of us feel right now. That's what happened after the 2011 Tucson shooting that left six dead and a dozen others injured, including Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, and there's no reason to expect a different outcome this time around.

No matter what Mr. Holmes pleads in court, there's a certain mass insanity that's taken hold when a nation and its elected leaders can so readily turn their collective back on the victims of gun violence. No one is suggesting that tracking mass-purchases of ammunition is all that needs to be done to address these incidents. But why not take a few modest steps? Why not require the ticking time bombs out there to jump a couple of hurdles before they can arm themselves to the teeth?

Helping identify and treat Americans who suffer from mental illness would be a good idea, too. But it has been our experience that as much as they claim to want the potentially violent among us caught before they can open fire in some public venue, the pro-gun crowd is not particularly interested in seeing more tax dollars spent on health care either.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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