When Barack Obama and Mitt Romney face each other in the first presidential debate in Colorado this fall – at the University of Denver, barely a 10-minute drive from the Batman movie massacre – gun control will almost certainly be among the topics.
So far both candidates have been largely avoiding the issue since a heavily armed gunman, wielding a military-style assault rifle, a shot-gun and a rapid-fire handgun, killed 12 and wounded another 58 in a terrifying massacre during a midnight premiere of The Dark Knight Rises.
Mr. Romney hedged when asked directly about gun control while Mr. Obama suggested "common sense" should guide any new rules. Both men have repeatedly stressed their respect and backing for the Second Amendment – which safeguards the citizenry's "right to bear arms" – while saying little about gun control. Yet both, earlier in their political careers, were champions of tough bans on assault weapons.
The presidential rivals "will be asked about what they would do to prevent gun violence and the public will expect them to offer solutions," Dan Gross, president of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, said Thursday in a statement, referring to the planned debate on Oct. 3 in Denver.
In London, at the start of a foreign tour intended to enhance his image, Mr. Romney avoided the question when asked if assault weapons, like the civilian version of the military M-16 used in the movie massacre, should be legally owned by Americans.
"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," Mr. Romney said, adding: "But he had them. … We can sometimes hope that just changing the law will make all bad things go away. It won't."
In fact, police say, James Holmes, 24, purchased all his weapons legally, passing background checks which – in Colorado – require that a person not have a criminal record or be certified insane or an admitted drug addict. Mr. Holmes, also legally, purchased 6,000 rounds of ammunition. However, the bombs and booby traps in his apartment were likely illegal and he didn't possess a "concealed carry" permit entitling him to hide his handgun as he walked around.
Mr. Holmes is expected to face multiple murder counts at a formal arraignment on July 30.
Mr. Obama, on whose watch a previous ban on assault weapons was declared unconstitutional, is routinely accused by the powerful National Rifle Association and others of secretly planning to impose sweeping gun-control laws if he gets re-elected.
The President has repeated insisted that he respects the Second Amendment and has offered only the most tentative of suggestions about new rules.
"A lot of gun owners would agree that AK-47s belong in the hands of soldiers, not in the hands of criminals," Mr. Obama said, referring to the Russian-made military weapon used worldwide and among the infantry weapons easily available in America. "They belong on the battlefield of war, not on the streets of our cities," he added.
Mr. Obama vaguely suggested more intrusive background checks for prospective gun buyers to attempt to assess mental competence and prevent the unbalanced from purchasing weapons.
"These steps shouldn't be controversial," the President said at the convention of the National Urban League civil-rights group in New Orleans on Wednesday. "They should be common sense."