Since James Holmes purchased an AR-15 assault rifle and shot twelve people dead in an Aurora movie theater, we've asked different local officials if they think stricter gun control laws could help prevent this kind of tragedy in the future. Recently, Denver mayor Michael Hancock told us that he would not use the mass shooting to push gun policy changes.
In the immediate aftermath of the shooting, Hancock declined to speak out on gun control, offering only a general statement via his spokeswoman. His statement included this: "It makes sense to turn to the weapons but we must not forget the man behind the gun."
In the days following the tragedy that made national headlines, it was common for Colorado officials to avoid specific policy pushes before grieving families could bury their loved ones. But in the weeks since the Aurora shooting, Representatives Ed Perlmutter and Diana DeGette have both proposed policy changes, and a Mayors Against Illegal Guns, a national coalition, has launched a television ad in Denver, calling on President Barack Obama and Mitt Romney to offer a concrete solution to gun violence.
Hancock is part of that coalition -- but, in an interview over the weekend, he said he does not agree with that kind of policy push on the heels of the July 20 attack.
"You know, that tragedy in Aurora, I would not use -- and the reason why I did not speak out about it -- I wouldn't use it as a bully pulpit for political [reach]," Hancock said when asked if he supports the coalition's ad campaign. "That suspect obtained those weapons legally. I certainly will stand firm against illegal guns.... The reality is this: If we want to talk about how we avoid situations like Aurora, let's go to the heart of the problem and not the symptoms."
We spoke to the mayor at a Peace March on Saturday focused on gang violence. In a speech at the rally, he said the problems of violence in Denver go far beyond questions of gun control.
"Obviously, we don't want our young people to be carrying weapons. There's no excuse for them to be carrying weapons -- certainly, illegal gun possession," Hancock said. "You can tell from my message today that I really believe this is much bigger than just gun control.... This is about individuals who have low sense of worth and purpose, where they can engage in activity that's going to put them behind bars potentially for the rest of their lives or could end someone else's life indiscriminately. So I think it's much deeper. I think it's about families, it's about communities, it's about self-worth, and we've still got to stay aggressive on the issues of gun control."
About suspect James Holmes, Hancock said, "What you saw was the manifestation of some problems that went unaddressed.... We're seeing now, as the stories are becoming known, that people knew he had psychological...psychiatric problems, and quite frankly, they didn't respond appropriately and give him the help as well as to make sure...we prevented this kind of violence."
Hancock repeated his refrain that we need to get to the "heart of the problem," saying, "What caused this? What created this?... I think the fact that he picked up a gun is a manifestation of his problems coming out.... That's why I won't ever come out and talk about those things that don't matter with the issue. This is too serious for all of us. Those families...are devastated by what happened in that theater, but let's be real with one another, and let's be real with ourselves and address the issue."
Asked if he supports the return of the assault weapons ban, Hancock said that Denver has an assault weapons ban, which he does support.
(In 2007, a city council representative tells us, Denver passed an ordinance banning "all semiautomatic action," including "centerfire rifles with a detachable magazine with a capacity of twenty-one or more rounds," as well as "semiautomatic shotguns with a folding stock or a magazine capacity of more than six rounds.")
The mayor said he agrees with President Barack Obama, who, after Aurora, said that military-style weapons don't belong in the hands of civilians (although Obama didn't call for specific policy changes and even some local supporters think he could do more).
DeGette proposed legislation that would heavily restrict the sale of ammunition online, and Hancock said he thinks it's important that there are trigger systems in which merchants notify law enforcement when large amounts of ammo are purchased.
"The reality is, 6,000 rounds [of ammunition] should have raised the flag for somebody, and there should've been an alert that we could've looked into," he said.
Echoing comments of Governor Denver's new Police Chief Robert White, Hancock declined to comment on the stance of John Hickenlooper, who said that stricter gun laws would not have prevented the tragedy.
"I don't know what the governor said. All I can do is speak for myself...and what the city of Denver ought to be doing," Hancock said, "and that is where we can get to the heart of some of these challenges, with regard to...dysfunctions in the family, with regard to abuse in the family, with regard to young people not having the proper safety nets and being early enough around some of these warnings when people have psychological, psychiatric challenges, that we are reacting appropriately as a community."
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He added, "The heart of the problem starts with the individual behind the gun."
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