[author: Aaron Kase]
Last week’s movie theater massacre in Aurora, Colorado that left 12 people dead and 58 injured took place amid an ongoing national debate about gun laws and the role of firearms in the lives of American citizens. James Holmes, 24, opened fire at the premier of the “Dark Knight Rises” film using four guns he had purchased legally, including an assault rifle, as well as a high-capacity magazine and thousands of rounds of ammunition.
While some safe-streets advocates like New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Philadelphia Police Chief Charles Ramsey have called for more stringent restrictions on firearms, the gun lobby has taken the opposite tack, advising that even more people carry guns in order to protect themselves from homicidal maniacs bent on destruction.
Meanwhile, the debate plays out in smaller slices around the nation. Consider Chicago, which for 28 years had a ban on handgun ownership, until a 2010 Supreme Court ruling called the prohibition a violation of Second Amendment rights. In response, the city has tried to modify its ban to pass constitutional muster, but is finding it challenging to strike a proper balance between public safety and people’s right to bear arms.
After a court challenge to a new law that prohibited people with criminal records from registering handguns, Chicago has amended the law to deny people gun permits for life if they were convicted of a violent felony, or for five years if convicted of a violent misdemeanor.
While denying firearms to violent criminals may sound reasonable, the law still could potentially face trouble due to some grey areas, says Matt Keenan, a criminal defense attorney in the Chicago area. “The problem you get into with all these laws is the violence thing,” Keenan says. “A crime of violence is partly in the eye of the beholder.”
Ambiguity can enter the picture, Keenan points out, when crimes like DUI are classified as violent, or when a suspect might be arrested for a violent crime only to have the charges downgraded during the judicial process.
However, lawmakers are feeling the heat to do something, as murders are up 36 percent in the city from last year, so City Council strives to tread the line between keeping guns out of the hands of people who might use them, yet enacting a law that can withstand another court challenge.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if the NRA fights it because they tend to fight everything,” Keenan says. “My sense is that this law will stand.”
Elsewhere, jurors who acquitted a Michigan teenager of brandishing a weapon after he was arrested for walking down a public street with a rifle strapped to his back have spoken out in favor of tighter gun laws in the state. In Wisconsin, police chiefs have called for background checks for all firearms buyers, not only those who buy their guns from licensed dealers.
However, a poll of newspaper readers in Lansing, Michigan panned a gun buyback plan announced by the mayor, saying it wouldn’t help reduce violence in the city.
On the pro-gun side of the spectrum, the NRA has been hurling accusations that President Obama plans to tear down the Second Amendment if reelected to office, making claims that the Fast and Furious gun running scandal was a government plot to enact tougher gun laws.
The group has also whipped up hysteria against a United Nations arms treaty, falsely claiming that the pact, which applies to gun sales over international borders, would let the U.N. strip American gun owners of their weapons.
Meanwhile, average citizens are weighing in with their pocketbooks. Background checks for people wishing to buy guns rose by 41 percent in Colorado in the aftermath of the theater tragedy.
*Public Defender Tamara Brady, right, shows James E. Holmes documents as he appears in Arapahoe County District Court, Monday, July 23, 2012, in Centennial, Colo. Holmes is accused of killing 12 and wounding 58 in a shooting rampage in a movie theater on Friday, July 20 in Aurora, Colo. (AP Photo/Denver Post, RJ Sangosti, Pool)