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A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

Gunman’s Weapons Already Illegal?

Arguing against the need for new gun laws in the wake of the Aurora shootings, Mitt Romney said many of the weapons possessed by shooter James Holmes were “illegal … already.” While it’s true that the bombs found later at Holmes’ apartment were illegal, that’s not the case for the weapons he used at the movie theater on the night of the rampage. Police confirmed that all of the weapons and ammunition used by Holmes that night were legally obtained at local sporting goods stores or over the Internet.

Romney’s comments came during an interview in London on July 25. NBC’s Brian Williams asked Romney about his position on gun control in the wake of the shootings at an Aurora, Colo., movie theater that left 12 dead and dozens more critically injured. Williams noted that as governor of Massachusetts, Romney signed an assault weapons ban and spoke out forcefully against the sale of assault weapons. Did he still believe that?

Romney said, “I don’t happen to believe America needs new gun laws. A lot of what this young man did was clearly against the law. The fact that it was against the law did not prevent it from happening.”

Later in the interview, Williams specifically asked Romney what he thought about the legality of the type of semi-automatic rifle used by Holmes during the shooting, as well as Holmes’ purchase of ammunition via the Internet.

Williams: On things however like Aurora, Colorado, do you see why Americans get frustrated at politics. They can see and hear your words from earlier in their career, people are hurting out there. Perhaps they want to start a national conversation about whether an AR-15 belongs in the hands of a citizen, whether a citizen should be able to buy six thousand rounds off the Internet. You see the argument?

Romney: Well, this person shouldn’t have had any kind of weapons and bombs and other devices and it was illegal for him to have many of those things already. But he had them. And so we can sometimes hope that just changing the law will make all bad things go away. It won’t. Changing the heart of the American people may well be what’s essential, to improve the lots of the American people.

Romney campaign spokesman Eric Fehrnstrom told us via email that Romney’s comment about illegal weapons “was a reference to the bombs, which the Governor directly mentioned in his comments.”

But that point wasn’t entirely clear during the interview, coming as it did in response to a specific question about the legality of semi-automatic assault rifles and the ability to purchase thousands of rounds of ammunition via the Internet.

According to law enforcement reports, Holmes is alleged to have used an AR-15 semi-automatic rifle in the attack. The sale of many forms of that rifle were prohibited during the years 1994 to 2004 due to the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994. An official at the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence said the type of ammunition magazine Holmes is alleged to have used — a 100-round drum magazine — was also banned for new production under the federal assault weapons ban, but went back into production and sale after the law expired in 2004.

Romney has said he would have supported an extension of the federal law at the time, and he signed a law banning assault weapons in Massachusetts in 2004 to take the place of the expiring federal ban in his state. In a press release at the time, Romney said: “These guns are not made for recreation or self-defense. They are instruments of destruction with the sole purpose of hunting down and killing people.” But during his runs for the presidency, Romney has consistently said that he does not believe there is a need for new legislation. (In a speech to the National Urban League this week, President Barack Obama appeared to call for reimposing an assault weapons ban.)

Law enforcement officials said they recovered four weapons following the shootings in Aurora. Holmes purchased a Glock pistol and the AR-15 assault rifle from Gander Mountain outdoor stores in Aurora and Thornton, and a shotgun and second Glock pistol from Bass Pro Shops in Denver, according to law enforcement officials quoted by the Associated Press. Aurora Police Chief Dan Oates said Holmes passed the required background checks. And, he said, Holmes purchased ammunition, including thousands of rounds and multiple magazines for the assault rifle, on the Internet.

Aurora Police Chief Dan Oates, July 21: All the weapons that he possessed, he possessed legally. And all the clips that he possessed, he possessed legally. And all the ammunition that he possessed, he possessed legally.

After detaining Holmes, law enforcement officials discovered that Holmes also had booby-trapped his apartment with explosives. Federal authorities detonated one small explosive and disarmed another inside the apartment, a law enforcement official told the AP. According to the AP, officials said the apartment had three types of explosives: “jars filled with accelerants, chemicals that would explode when mixed together and more than 30 ‘improvised grenades.’ ”

In a later story, AP reported: “It’s unclear if [Holmes] obtained the materials illegally, but it’s against Colorado law to build an explosive device.”

So Romney is correct to say that any bombs found at Holmes’ apartment were illegal. But all of the weapons alleged to have been used by Holmes at the movie theater that night — including a controversial semi-automatic rifle once banned by federal law — were obtained legally.

— Robert Farley