Colorado dealers turned in 40 percent more background check requests for gun purchasers in the four days after the Aurora theater shootings than they did the previous weekend, a spike in gun sales similar to previous runs after other mass killings, including the 1999 Columbine High School attack, according to the Christian Science Monitor. But just how significant is this latest rush by Americans to arm themselves, which seems to be happening in other areas of the country as well?
"I'm skeptical about this having any kind of lasting effect," says Florida State University criminology professor Gary Kleck. "People who are already thinking about purchasing a gun are possibly being pushed into it by news of this violence. But overall, year after year, we see the same percentage of households reporting gun ownership."
Kleck, an expert on patterns of gun ownership and crime control -- and an author of several studies that bolster the idea that guns used in self-defense and as a deterrent save more lives than are lost in gun-related homicides -- says the spike in sales is only a statistical blip. Short-lived fears about politicians pushing for more gun control have been known to fuel other stampedes to the gun shops, such as one that occurred shortly before Barack Obama's election as President in 2008.
"When the federal assault weapon ban was being debated, people went out and bought anything that was military-looking," Kleck notes, "even though they only ended up banning a narrow range of models."
In the wake of the attack in Aurora, some gun control advocates are again calling for bans on assault weapons and deploring the ease with which suspected shooter James Holmes allegedly obtained his guns and ammo. But Kleck finds the more "professional" voices among the gun-control crowd are being comparatively cautious.
"They haven't been saying this or that measure would have prevented this particular act of violence," he observes. "They know it sounds ridiculous to say that. Stopping someone from buying 6,000 rounds of ammunition on the Internet wouldn't have stopped this shooter from firing the 100 or 150 rounds he did fire. What they are saying is that now is the time to think about gun control -- again."
But the author of Point Blank: Guns and Violence in America is no more sanguine about the ability of gun owners to prevent a tragedy such as the one in Aurora than he is about the gun-control lobby's ability to gain traction from the event. Despite the millions of gun sales in this country every year (fewer than one might think, actually, since background check rates don't equate to sales), the percentage of adult citizens who actually carry guns with them for self-defense remains low -- around 2 percent, according to Kleck.
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"Suppose you have about 300 people in a theater," Kleck says. "There's a chance you wouldn't have a single conceal-carry permit in the entire group. It's unlikely you would have one who is trained and mentally prepared to handle a situation like this."
Still, he adds, "I don't accept the argument that [armed citizens] would have just ended up killing an innocent bystander. Even if they did, it could well result in fewer deaths than if the shooter was simply allowed to fire into an unarmed crowd."
More from our Aurora Theater Shooting archive: "Aurora shooting: Tom Mauser, Columbine father, on gun control, political silence."