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Tucson shooter was able to buy gun with ease

Jared Lee Loughner broke no laws when he walked into the Sportsman's Warehouse in Tucson on Nov. 30 and walked out a few minutes later with a powerful, semi-automatic Glock 19 handgun, along with a couple of extra-long magazines each capable of holding more than 30 bullets.

Total cost, about $500. A cursory background check was required but, in Arizona, no permit is needed to carry it around, concealed and loaded.

At the hulking green and grey warehouse, a quick check - usually less than five minutes on the telephone, even less using the online database maintained by the Federal Bureau of Investigation - confirmed Mr. Loughner was neither a serious convict, deemed mentally defective nor committed to a psychiatric institution. Among those proud to have fought against any curbs on the rights of all Americans to "bear arms" was Gabrielle Giffords, who once boasted to constituents that she helped defeat the nation's toughest handgun law that outlawed weapons such as the Glock in the nation's capital.

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"As a gun owner, I am a strong supporter of the Second Amendment. In February, I was proud to sign the amicus brief in District of Columbia v. Heller asking the Supreme Court to uphold the lower-court ruling that overturned the long standing D.C. gun ban," Ms. Giffords, a Democrat, said in her hard-fought re-election campaign in mostly Republican Arizona.

Until he actually opened fire, shooting Ms. Giffords through the head, killing six and wounding 13 others, Mr. Loughner was what the National Rifle Association calls a "law-abiding citizen" who had done nothing illegal by carrying a concealed and loaded Glock with enough ammunition to kill dozens to a public place. Even the extra-long magazines once outlawed under the assault-gun ban have been legal since it expired in 2004.

The Tucson mass killing and the deliberate assassination attempt have re-ignited the gun-control debate in America. Arizona, like Vermont and Alaska, has the least-restrictive gun laws in the country.

"Arizona, as it turns out, has almost no gun laws, and scored just two points out of 100 last year on the Brady State Scorecard," said Paul Helmke, president of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, named after Ronald Reagan's press secretary, James Brady, who was shot in the head by the deranged assassin who tried to kill the president in 1981.

"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' … but that's not enough to keep someone from legally buying as many guns as they want in America," Mr. Helmke added.

Gun-rights advocates dismiss claims that tougher rules would have prevented last weekend's killing, or the mass slaughter at Virginia Tech in 2007, or any of the thousands of gunshot injuries and deaths every year in America.

"Weapons don't kill people, it's the individual that kills people," Rand Paul, a Republican senator from Kentucky, said in the wake of the Tucson massacre. That's a view voiced by many, including Ms. Giffords.

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Even in states with the toughest gun laws on the Brady scale - such as California and New Jersey - Mr. Loughner might have got his gun, although some gun-control advocates think the tighter rules would have caught him.

"I'm pretty confident that if he tried to buy a gun in New Jersey, he would have failed," said Josh Horowitz, executive director of the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence.

Waiting periods, extensive background checks, limits on firearms purchases, permit requirements, checks with state and local police and limits on large magazines would all have increased the chances that Mr. Loughner would have been rejected for gun ownership.

Even then, a quick trip to a neighbouring state with slacker rules would have solved the problem, even without resorting to the vast number of weapons easily available - albeit illegally - in any big American city.

Canadian guns laws much stricter

In Canada, the Tucson shooter would have faced a much, much tougher time arming himself with a Glock, or any other semi-automatic handgun capable of killing and maiming two dozen people in a few seconds. Canadian gun laws - while not at tough as many in Europe - make America's seem inconsequential.

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To own a Glock in Canada requires two levels of permits - one for a firearm and another, much more stringent, for a handgun. Extensive background checks by police can take between three and six months. Once approved for a licence, the prospective gun owner can then purchase and keep the weapon but only from screened and approved arms dealers. The owner must belong to a gun club. The gun can only be transported between designated places - usually the owner's home, the gun club and a designated border point for competitions in the United States. No handgun can ever be transported or carried loaded, except by law-enforcement agents.

Would it have made a difference in Tucson? Perhaps. U.S. gun-control advocates point to Canada as a shining example. But north of the border, not everyone is so sure.

"There's no level of regulation that will prevent a tragedy like this from happening," said Blair Hagan, executive vice-president of the National Firearms Association of Canada. In 2006, Canadian Kimveer Gill used a Glock pistol almost identical to the one used in Tucson along with two other guns to shoot 20 people at Dawson College in Montreal. Mr. Gill was legally in possession of all three firearms and had passed all the tests and backgrounds checks, save that he hadn't bothered to get a transport permit before heading out on his murderous rampage.

"Canadian laws are designed to be so stringent to prevent that sort of thing," Mr. Hagan said, adding it doesn't work, because the "criminal element will always be able to get guns."

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International Affairs and Security Correspondent

Paul More

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