WASHINGTON – Back-to-back mass shootings in Georgia and Colorado underscore how loopholes and weak restrictions in gun laws enabled both suspects to get quick access to their weapons of choice in attacks that left 18 people dead.
The shootings this month have thrust the issue of gun violence back into the national spotlight – and with it, calls for changes in gun requirements.
While the shootings are unrelated and on different ends of the country, they both exposed issues within current gun laws. Namely, they show that nuances in laws – or no laws at all – allow certain guns to skirt state and federal statutes.
The suspect who police say opened fire and killed eight at three spas in Georgia – an attack that shook the Asian-American community – bought a handgun just hours before the massacre. Georgia has no state law requiring a firearm waiting period, a requirement in 10 states and the District of Columbia that aims to save lives by delaying a potential killer from acting on impulse.
Six days after the Georgia assault, a man described by family members as mentally ill attacked a Colorado grocery store and killed 10, including a police officer. Police say in the days before the attack, the Colorado suspect purchased a Ruger AR-556 pistol that experts say largely mirrors a short-barrel rifle.
Federal law allows the Ruger to be categorized as a pistol, granting the suspect easy access to the weapon without the extensive restrictions placed on short-barrel rifles.
“Why does this keep happening? And why aren’t we doing anything to stop it?” Rep. Ted Deutch, a Democrat who represents Parkland, Fla. that saw its own mass shooting at a high school in 2018. “We have both a gun violence epidemic in our country. And we have, sadly, a routine that we follow after these mass shootings, where there is intense focus that that lasts until people move on to the next issue.”
Loosened gun laws pass in Georgia amid push for waiting periods
Michael Webb, the ex-husband of Xiaojie Tan 谭小洁 — one of the victims of the Georgia spa shootings, told those at her funeral on Friday that their family wants their daughter to move to China due to the gun violence and ongoing attacks targeting Asian-Americans in the U.S.
“They think it’s just not safe here anymore and who could blame them,” Webb said. “Do we really have to quarantine ourselves to avoid being gunned down in the grocery store, our schools, our businesses, our places of worship? Must our flags always fly at half-mast? We as a country should be ashamed.”
Police say the suspect in the Atlanta-area attacks was found with a 9mm firearm. He legally purchased a weapon the day of the attacks from Big Woods Goods, a sporting good story in Cherokee County where police say the first spa he targeted is located. Matt Kilgo, the shop’s attorney, said his clients are “fully cooperating” with police. “Everything they have will be turned over,” Kilgo said.
If Georgia had required him to wait before getting a gun, lawmakers and advocates say, he might not have acted on his impulse to kill.
“It’s really quick. You walk in, fill out the paperwork, get your background check and walk out with a gun,” said Robyn Thomas, executive director of the Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence. “If you’re in a state of crisis, personal crisis, you can do a lot of harm fairly quickly.”
The vast majority of states have laws similar to Georgia, allowing buyers to walk out of a store with a firearm after a background check that sometimes can take minutes. Waiting periods are required in just 10 states and the District of Columbia, although several states are considering legislation this year to impose them.
Gun control advocates have been pushing for years to mandate a window of even a couple of days between the purchase of a gun and taking possession of it, arguing it can give more time for background checks and create a cooling-off period for people considering harming themselves or someone else. Studies suggest that waiting periods may help bring down firearm suicide rates by up to 11% and gun homicides by about 17%, according to the Giffords Center.
Georgia State Sen. Michelle Au, a first term Democrat and the first Asian-American elected to the body, proposed a bill after the shooting that called for a 5-day waiting period. It wasn’t welcomed in the GOP-held legislature.
“I think [this shooting] brings a lot of focus on should we be able to buy a gun that we use to kill people that quickly,” she said in an interview. “The thinking behind having a waiting period is essentially to build in a cooling off period to help guard against impulsive act like this.”
She noted a comment made by police after the shootings that the suspect was having a “bad day,” calling it ridiculous and sympathetic to the suspect but explaining that broadly, it “really illustrates” why waiting periods can be helpful, especially in suicides or domestic disputes where a cooling off period could be crucial.
But, 13 days after the shooting, the Georgia State Senate instead passed a measure loosening gun restrictions in the state.
The measure, which needs to be voted on by the GOP-held State House before reaching the Republican governor, would loosen Georgia law to allow anyone from any state that has a concealed weapons permit to carry their gun in Georgia.
It also expands prohibitions on restrictions on both gun owners and gun shops during a state of emergency, something that became a topic during the lockdowns due to COVID-19. It prevents seizing firearms during a state of emergency, prohibits government officials from stopping the manufacture or sale of guns during an emergency and halts the government from limiting operating hours of gun stores, gun makers or shooting ranges unless every business in an area is subject to the same operating restrictions.
The bill also prevents the creation of any multijurisdictional database with information about anyone who even applies for a weapons license and requires agencies to auction confiscated firearms at least once a year, making sure agencies can’t just hold firearms. If a city, county or state agency didn’t hold the required auction, the bill allows anyone who wanted to buy the guns to sue.
“It’s an incredible slap in the face to our community which is still reeling from this tragedy,” Au said, calling it “tone deaf” but noting that was a “very mild way to put muscling through an agenda that runs completely counter to what we are hearing from our communities of what people want.”
Gun rights groups, including the National Rifle Association, oppose waiting periods. The group points to 2018 federal firearm-tracing data that shows the average time between first retail sale of a gun and involvement in a crime was nearly nine years. They also argue that waiting periods create a delay for people buying legally, while leaving illegal weapons transfers unaffected.
“A right delayed is a right denied,” Second Amendment Foundation founder Alan Gottlieb said.
In Colorado, a pistol that experts say skirts gun laws
Witnesses detailed the suspect, describing to police the body armor he was wearing and the long rifle he used to open fire at innocents at the King Soopers grocery store in Boulder, Colo. Police chronicled the bullets being shot at them, also calling the weapon a rifle or AR-15 styled rifle several times in the arrest affidavit that charged the suspect with 10 counts of first-degree murder.
The Ruger AR-556 pistol looks like a rifle and operates similarly, even firing the same ammunition of an AR-15 rifle but is categorized as a pistol. It’s smaller than a typical AR-15, allowing it to be more concealable and maneuverable, and has several other differences, including being manufactured to operate with one hand instead of two.
But experts and gun control advocates have raised issues with the weapons, arguing gun manufacturers were using vaguely worded laws that define different categories of weaponry to skirt regulations.
They argue the pistols largely mirror a short-barrel rifle, which are heavily regulated under the National Firearms Act. A short-barrel rifle is defined in the Act as a rifle with a barrel shorter than 16 inches. The Ruger AR-556 pistol has a barrel of anywhere from 9.5 to 10 inches.
“If you cut off the back end of the AR-15 and you shorten up the muzzle – the front part where the bullet comes out – it’s the same thing,” said Christopher Herrmann, a former New York City police officer and an assistant professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice. “You’ve taken this deadly AR-15 weapon and now you’ve made it concealable.”
Like the AR-15, the gun is semiautomatic. It’s a portable “weapon of mass destruction,” Herrmann said — “all the comforts of a limousine but in a smaller car.”
The National Firearms Act regulates certain weapons and attachments, including machine guns, silencers and sawed-off shotguns. It poses stringent rules and a lengthy process in order to purchase these weapons. Among the provisions, a person must be approved by the ATF, pass an extensive background check, submit photos and fingerprints, fully register the gun and pay a tax. The process typically takes months.
The suspect in the Boulder shooting purchased the Ruger AR-556 six days before the attack.
The Gun Control Act defines a pistol as a weapon intended to fire a bullet with a short stock that is “designed to be gripped by one hand.” The definition doesn’t note anything about the length of a barrel, meaning longer pistols like the Ruger AR-556 that mirror a rifle can still be categorized as a pistol if it meets the criteria, said Rick Vasquez, a former ATF firearms enforcement officer who owns a firearms business that offers training in identifying firearms and on regulations.
The shooting thrust these pistols into the limelight and Wednesday, a group of 100 House Democrats wrote a letter to President Joe Biden calling on him to take executive action to address “serious inequities in the implementation of the National Firearms Act,” noting these pistols and their concealability pose an “unreasonable threat to our communities” and should be highly regulated.
“For too long, gun manufacturers in order to circumvent the National Firearms Act have designed and marketed concealable AR-15 style firearms which fire rifle rounds,” he letter reads.
House Democrats passed two gun control measures in the aftermath of the shootings that targeted background checks and closing a loophole that allowed gun sales to proceed without a completed background check if three business days have passed, by extending the background check review period from three days to 10.
Both bills face an uphill battle in the Senate where 60 votes are needed to pass them, meaning 10 Republicans would be needed to vote with all Democrats.
The standstill has put pressure on Biden to act.
The president called for the Senate to pass the two House-passed bills and the White House has stressed all options were on the table, from other legislation to executive actions. Biden has remained focus on his scripted plans for the second phase of his “Build Back Better” agenda, choosing to instead concentrate and wield his political capital on an infrastructure package to help rebound the country after the pandemic.
“It’s a matter of timing,” Biden told reporters when asked about gun control. “As you’ve all observed, the successful presidents better than me have been successful in large part because they know how to time what they’re doing. Order it, decide and prioritize what needs to be done.”
Rep. Deutch argued it was well past time to act and provide deep, meaningful changes for communities like his in Parkland, Fla. that have watched in horror each time there’s another attack. “It’s both frustration and a sense of purpose,” he said of how his community reacts.
The Florida Democrat argued the path forward doesn’t have to be so complicated, pointing to the blueprint used over the last year with passing a number of COVID-19 relief packages. In an emergency, he said, both parties worked together to find common ground to provide relief and change.
“I think the administration must make this a priority and not by passing a particular piece of legislation but by stopping this epidemic of gun violence which affects every community in the country,” he said, calling for Biden to use appearances in communities across the country to help pass gun reforms. “We’re asking that the president use his very strong and powerful and emotional voice and connection that he has with people to do what he’s done before: which is to bring people together to stop gun violence.”
Contributing: Courtney Subramanian, Romina Ruiz, Grace Hauck and Kevin Johnson; Associated Press