DENVER — In a world where Amazon can track your next book purchase and you must register to buy allergy medicine, James Eagan Holmes spent months stockpiling thousands of bullets and head-to-toe ballistic gear without raising any red flags with authorities.
The suspect in the mass theater shooting availed himself of an unregulated online marketplace that allows consumers to acquire some of the tools of modern warfare as if they were pieces of a new wardrobe. The Internet is awash in sites ranging from BulkAmmo.com, which this weekend listed a sale on a thousand rifle rounds for $335, to eBay, where bidding on one armored special forces helmet has risen to $799.
"We're different than other cultures," said Dudley Brown, executive director of Rocky Mountain Gun Owners, which advocates for firearms owners' rights. "We do allow Americans to possess the accoutrements that our military generally has."
Gun rights activists like Brown celebrate that freedom, but even some involved in the trade are troubled by how easily Holmes stocked up for his alleged rampage.
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Chad Weinman runs TacticalGear.com, which caters to police officers looking to augment their equipment, members of the military who don't want to wait on permission from the bureaucracy for new combat gear, and hobbyists like survivalists and paintballers. The site receives "thousands" of orders daily, sometimes from entire platoons that are about to deploy to war zones.
On July 2, Holmes placed a $306 order with the site for a combat vest, magazine holders and a knife, paying extra for expedited two-day shipping to his Aurora apartment. The order, Weinman said, didn't stand out.
"There's a whole range of consumers who have an appetite for these products, and 99.9 percent of them are law-abiding citizens," Weinman said. But he said that "it makes me sick" that Holmes bought material from him. He added that he doesn't sell guns or ammunition and that he was "shocked" at the amount of bullets that Holmes allegedly bought online.
Authorities say all of Holmes' purchases were legal — and there is no official system to track whether people are stockpiling vast amounts of firepower.
There is no restriction on the sale of bullets in the United States, except for armor-piercing rounds, which can only be bought by law enforcement, said Ginger Colbrun, a spokeswoman for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms. Hence the proliferation of websites offering Amazon.com-style wish-lists for hollow-point rifle rounds or tracer bullets.
There is a federal law that bars selling body armor to violent felons — which Holmes was not — but it is rarely used because there are is no requirement to check whether purchasers of the material have criminal records, according to Dan Gross, president of the Brady Campaign Against Gun Violence.
Over four months, authorities said, Holmes received more than 50 packages at his Aurora apartment and the University of Colorado medical school, where he was studying neuroscience. As the boxes piled up, he began to shop for guns at sporting goods stores — because of the need to pass a background check to buy a firearm, they are still generally bought at brick-and-mortar locations.
On May 22, law enforcement officials said Holmes bought a Glock pistol. Less than a week later, he upgraded to a shotgun. The following week he bought an AR-15 rifle, versions of which had been outlawed under the assault weapon ban in 1994. But that prohibition expired in 2004 and Congress, in a nod to the political clout of gun enthusiasts, did not renew it.
Holmes also acquired explosive materials and equipment to rig his entire apartment with a complex series of booby traps that took authorities days to dismantle. Officials have not said how he obtained the material for the devices.
Holmes capped off his gun purchases with another pistol on July 7. Authorities say that, 12 days later, Holmes bought a ticket to the midnight premiere of the Batman movie "The Dark Knight Rises" and entered the theater with the crowd, then slipped out the side door and returned dressed for battle.
Oates said the shooter wore a ballistic helmet, gas mask, throat-protector, tactical vest and pants — such complete protective gear that responding officers almost mistook him for a member of the SWAT team. He lobbed gas canisters at the crowd, then opened fire. By the time police arrived, 90 seconds later, Holmes had shot dozens of people because his rifle was modified with a high-powered drum magazine that allowed him to fire immense amounts of bullets without reloading. "It was a pretty rapid pace of fire in that theater," Oates said.
The high-capacity magazine had also been prohibited under the assault weapon ban, and even though the federal law expired a few states outlaw the devices. Colorado, which has relatively permissive gun laws, does not.
Colorado State Senator John Morse, a Democrat, said he wished the state barred large-capacity magazines and guns like the AR-15, but he does not expect the attack to make that likely. "The NRA has managed to convince the country that this has to happen to protect our Second Amendment rights," Morse said. "As long as we let people buy these guns, we will bury our children."
Rep Carolyn McCarthy (D-NY), whose husband was killed in a mass shooting on the Long Island Railroad in 1993, has proposed a ban on high-capacity magazines in Congress but acknowledges it has little chance of passage. She said she was horrified by the shooting but most shocked by the other material that Holmes allegedly accumulated — the bullets and combat gear.
"It befuddles me to think those things should be sold to the general public," she said.
Colorado State Rep. Mike Waller cautioned against trying to limit purchases of ammunition. He noted that Holmes reportedly bought 300 rounds for his shotgun. "My 13-year-old son and I go out to the shooting range all the time," said Waller, a Republican. "I buy more than 300 rounds of shotgun shells when I do that."
He said there may be discussion of limiting the sale of the sort of protective clothing that Holmes allegedly donned. "Is that what the right to bear arms means, that you can purchase tactical gear to stop law enforcement from preventing you from perpetrating a crime?" Waller asked. "In the days and weeks to come, this is going to be a significant conversation."
But gun enthusiasts caution against over-reacting to the massacre. Brown, of Rocky Mountain Gun Owners, said he thinks citizen's access to weaponry has made the United States "a stronger country." And he doesn't see anything unusual about many of Holmes' alleged purchases.
"If I only had 6,000 rounds for my AR-15s, I'd literally feel naked," Brown said. Then he totaled up Holmes' firearms purchases: "Two handguns, a shotgun and a rifle. That's the average male in Colorado."
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