By Michael Isikoff
NBC News National Investigative Correspondent
When he began shooting outside the Tucson supermarket, Jared Lee Loughner had a Glock 19 pistol that he purchased for $500 and two high capacity 33-round magazines whose manufacture had once been banned under federal law, federal law enforcement officials said Sunday.
But that law, part of a broader 1994 assault weapons ban, expired seven years ago under President Bush. As a result, the 22-year-old Loughner was able to legally acquire high-capacity clips that substantially enhanced the lethality of his attack, officials said. Loughner was charged Sunday with the incidents involving federal employees: two counts of murder and three counts of attempted murder. (A copy of the charges is here, in a PDF file.)
“It gave him a tactical advantage,” said one federal law enforcement official who asked for anonymity. Referring to high-capacity magazines, the official said, “There’s absolutely no doubt the magazines increased the lethality and the body count of this attack.”
Some federal law enforcement officials — and gun control groups — pointed to Loughner’s lawful access to the magazines, as well as the semi-automatic Glock pistol despite an apparent history of mental troubles, as further evidence of the weakness of federal gun laws. There were already signs Sunday that, as with past shooting massacres, such as the ones at Virginia Tech or at Columbine High School in Colorado, the Tuscon assassination was reigniting the perennial debate over federal gun laws.
“The 22-year-old shooter in Tucson was not allowed to enlist in the military, was asked to leave school, and was considered ‘very disturbed,’” according to former classmates, "but that’s not enough to keep someone from legally buying as many guns as they want in America,” said Paul Helmke, president of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence.
The porous nature of the gun laws are even greater in Arizona, where the state’s governor, Jan Brewer, a gun rights champion, last year signed a law striking down a permit requirement for carrying a concealed weapon. Two years ago, she signed a law permitting guns to be carried into bars and restaurants that sell alcohol.
Loughner legally purchased the Glock pistol at a Sportsman’s Warehouse store in Tuscson on Nov. 30, filling out a standard federal form that, among other questions, affirmed he had never been convicted of a felony or been “adjudicated” as "mentally defective.” Although he had been charged with a misdemeanor drug offense in 2008 and had been suspended in September from Pima Community College until a mental health professional certified he was not a danger to himself or others, neither disqualified him from legally purchasing the weapon.
But one federal law enforcement official involved in the case pointed to the high-capacity magazines as an even bigger issue in the attack. The Glock pistol as advertised comes with a standard clip of 15 rounds. The shooter on Saturday had four magazines with his Glock: two high-capacity magazines of more than 30 rounds, and two standard rounds, giving him combined firepower of more than 90 rounds. "He had emptied the first magazine and was trying to reload when he was tackled," said one law enforcement official.
As part of the broader 1994 assault weapons ban, Congress prohibited the manufacture of high-capacity magazines that would enable a shooter to repeatedly fire more rounds without reloading. That law drew stiff opposition from the National Rifle Association and other gun rights groups — and was allowed to expire under President George W. Bush in 2004.
President Obama, during his 2008 campaign, pledged to restore the ban, and in its early days the Obama White House even had language on its website affirming that the administration supported making “the expired federal Assault Weapons Ban permanent.”
But White House officials have long since dropped the issue as politically impractical, especially in light of the opposition of Blue Dog Democrats. (Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, the target of Saturday’s tactic, was among them.) The language about the assault weapons ban since has been dropped from the White House site.
How much of a difference a reinstatement of the ban would have made in the Tucson shooting is open to dispute. James Cavanaugh, a former senior official of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, noted that the assault weapons ban only barred the manufacture of new high-capacity magazines; those already on the market were “grandfathered” in and could still be sold. Even without the two high-capacity magazines he had on him, the shooter could have used the Glock’s standard click to fire off 15 rounds—enough to have hit most, if not all, of the targets in the Saturday shooting, he said.
A more relevant issue, Cavanaugh said, was the exceedingly high standard for denying mentally unstable gun purchasers from acquiring weapons. The current standard — they must be “adjudicated” mentally unstable by a court — is very difficult to meet and results in very few denials, he said. While there are unquestionably civil liberties issues at stake, Cavanaugh said, “when people are psychotic, they shouldn’t be able to just walk in and purchase a gun at a gun store like he did.”