Gun Culture

Why It Was So Easy for Columbine Threat Suspect to Buy a Shotgun

Why It Was So Easy for Columbine Threat Suspect to Buy a Shotgun
Eighteen-year-old Sol Pais, whose presence in Colorado prompted the closure of sixteen metro school districts on Wednesday, April 17, died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound near the base of Mount Evans yesterday, and schools will be open today. But plenty of questions still linger, including this one: Why was it so easy for an eighteen-year-old from Florida to buy a shotgun on her first day in this state?

The answers relate to Colorado's gun laws, which were tightened the year after the 2012 Aurora theater shooting. But those changes didn't preclude Pais's purchase of the weapon from Colorado Gun Broker, a business located at 8966 West Bowles, just 1.7 miles from Columbine High School, where a shooting on April 20, 1999, twenty years ago this week, killed twelve students and a teacher. Local authorities have thus far argued that the transaction was legal — and indeed, Colorado allows anyone eighteen and older to purchase a long gun or shot gun. But there's debate over whether Pais's buy ran afoul of federal gun laws because of new rules in her home state of Florida.

News stories have reported on a website that Internet sources claim was created by Pais, who lived in the small community of Surfside, near Miami. At a press conference on the afternoon of April 17, after Pais's body had been found, FBI agents confirmed that the site will be analyzed as part of the continuing investigation into Pais's actions.

The material at the address, summarized in a roundup, contains plenty of elements sure to inflame those who feared that Pais intended to reenact the Columbine attack, with which law enforcement sources say she was "infatuated." Examples include an "About Me" section that boasts the line "in this tiresome reality that i do not belong in, i take the form of Sol"; references to lots of ’90s-era music (including lyrics to a Nine Inch Nails song); and screen captures of handwritten spiral notebook pages filled with violent statements and ghoulish drawings that recall the journal entries of the Columbine killers released years after the attack.

As pointed out by the Miami Herald, the screen name associated with the website is the same as one found in an online thread headlined "Question About Non Colorado Resident Buying Shotgun," which appeared on the National Gun Forum website on March 29. The conversation began: "Hello everybody. Florida resident here. I am planning a trip to Colorado in the next month or so and wanna buy a shotgun while I'm there and I was wondering what restrictions apply for me? I've found a few private sellers I might want to purchase from; is it legal for me as a Florida resident to purchase a shotgun in Colorado? I'm 18 years old too, if it's important. Thank you for reading, I appreciate any response!"

Plenty of replies followed, including this one: "If you do not have a valid Colorado driver’s license, you can buy a long gun (rifle or shotgun), and take it with you." However, a number of correspondents raised a complicating issue: After the 2018 school shooting in Parkland, Florida, lawmakers in that state raised the minimum age to purchase a long gun to 21. Other commenters cited the issue of flying home with a shotgun.

In response, the person who posed the question explained: "I'm flying in but plan on coming back in car for a road trip, and I'm aware of the law requiring that the gun be stored in a locked container, etc. I have it all planned out, have friends coming with me who own guns and know what they're doing. I'm currently in the process of contacting both CO and FL gun stores but just wanted a second opinion. Gun laws can get tricky and I want the most info I can get, even if I have to take it with a grain of salt.... I just wanted to take the opportunity of this trip to buy a shotgun and go shooting/hunting somewhere nicer than FL, lol, and with friends who know more than I do. CO forests beat FL forests any day. Plus if I bought the gun in FL I'd have to go through the trouble of dealing with the airport, but driving back should be a simpler process."

click to enlarge A screen capture from the National Gun Forum website. - NATIONALGUNFORUM.COM
A screen capture from the National Gun Forum website.
The author added: "I've done tons of research on shotguns and have a very clear idea of how they work, and have been taking trips to the shooting range of course to practice. If I do manage to find a shotgun up in CO, I will absolutely do my research ahead of time and all. The problem is I have no friends in FL who are into guns like me, so it's not as fun having to do all of this alone (hence the trip to CO to see these more knowledgeable friends), but hey, it's my damn choice what hobbies I wanna pick up and I don't need anybody else (save for everyone on this forum, lol). Thank you again!"

A summary of the 2013 changes in Colorado gun laws details three major pieces of legislation, noting that House Bill 13-1229 "requires (1) universal background checks pursuant to the transfer of firearms, including private transfers, with several exceptions; (2) new mental health reporting; and (3) a judicial appeals process for individuals restricted from acquiring or possessing firearms." House Bill 13-1228 "requires the Colorado Bureau of Investigation to recoup the cost of performing an instant criminal background check by charging a background check fee." And House Bill 13-1224 "prohibits the sale, transfer, or possession of large-capacity ammunition magazines (more than 15 rounds), with certain exceptions."

However, none of these provisions were an impediment to Pais purchasing a shotgun in Colorado, despite the "mental problems" that Pais's father suggested she might have had in a conversation with a Herald reporter.  And while red flag legislation that creates a process to take weapons from mentally ill individuals deemed a danger to themselves and others was signed into law by Colorado Governor Jared Polis earlier this month, the structure it creates can't move forward until next year.

Asked about Pais's purchase of the shotgun and ammunition, Senator Brittany Pettersen, who sponsored the red flag bill, underscored this last point in an email to Westword. The legislation "was effective upon signature, but courts do not start accepting petitions until 1/1/2020," she wrote. Nonetheless, Pettersen added, the Pais situation "exemplifies the need for this legislation to ensure there is a process in place to remove weapons from someone who has exhibited escalating threatening behavior to protect our community, students and law enforcement."

Current Colorado gun provisions are outlined by the Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence. The organization's page pertaining to background checks in Colorado notes that it's "a point of contact state for firearm purchaser background checks. In Colorado, all firearm transfers by licensed dealers are processed by the Colorado Bureau of Investigation (CBI), which enforces federal, as well as state, purchaser prohibitions. Colorado requires CBI to transmit a request for a background check in connection with the prospective transfer of a firearm to the NICS [National Instant Criminal Background Check System] and authorizes CBI to search other databases."

Such a check typically takes around fifteen minutes, and if an individual comes through clean, the purchase can be finalized — and in Pais's case, it was.

But, as noted by the Giffords center, Florida laws are different in ways that go beyond the 21-year age limit for the purchase of long guns; that state also "requires at least a three-day waiting period prior to the purchase of firearms at retail." And as Colorado Public Radio has noted, federal gun law says that a resident of one state can't purchase a shotgun in another state unless the sale "complies with state law in the state where the licensee is located and in the state where the purchaser resides."

That Pais walked away with a shotgun anyhow is a major concern to Colorado Ceasefire, a group calling for stricter gun laws; Tom Mauser, whose son Daniel was murdered at Columbine in 1999, has served as a board member and spokesman for the organization. A release from Colorado Ceasefire Legislative Action president Eileen McCarron, a retired schoolteacher, in the wake of the Pais episode calls for the following legislative changes:
• Raise the age for long-gun purchases to 21, rather than 18. Under current federal law, those under 21 can not purchase handguns, a limit that is enforced in Colorado through our universal background checks.

• Implement a waiting period for firearm purchases. Six states have waiting periods from one to ten days....

• Amend the newly-implemented Extreme Risk [red flag] law to allow suspending firearms access to those from out-of-state who can be demonstrated as a danger to self or others. Interestingly, some law enforcement authorities were examining that new law to see if it could be utilized to stop Pais from acquiring more weapons. 
Unless and until such changes are made, Colorado remains a "relatively lax state," according to online firearms dealer Pew Pew Tactical.

In a section on the Pew Pew website about Colorado and firearms, the site notes that "Colorado is a relatively lax state when it comes to gun laws, but there are still a few things to watch out for when trying to be a responsible gun owner."

For instance, no permit is required to purchase either a handgun or a long gun, but shotguns have "special mag restrictions that you'll need to be careful of. Any shotgun mag that is detachable can only hold eight rounds or less. Tubular shotgun mags are only allowed to hold up to 28 inches of ammo."

But long guns can be "carried openly without a permit, as long as you are somewhere it is legal for you to carry the gun," Pew Pew concludes, "so there’s nothing special to keep in mind."
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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
Contact: Michael Roberts