Navy Yard Shooter Legally Had Guns
The man who shot and killed 12 people at the Washington Navy Yard on Sept. 16 and was killed by police himself, Aaron Alexis, had a checkered criminal and mental health past, leading many to question how he owned a gun and how he got access to the premises of a restricted area.
Aaron entered the Navy Yard, the administrative center of the U.S. Navy, with a valid pass on the morning of Sept. 16 and entered a building where he began shooting people with a shotgun.
He managed to get to several other floors and kill more people with a semi-automatic handgun he had taken from a slain officer. He was then killed in a shootout with law enforcement officers from multiple federal agencies.
Alexis, who had been in the Naval Reserves and had served at a naval air station base in Fort Worth, Texas as an aviation electrician’s mate, was reportedly honorably discharged from the Navy in January 2011.
A Navy official told the Washington Post that Alexis had been in trouble for a range of offenses, from traffic tickets and lateness to work, to insubordination and disorderly conduct.
While the Navy had originally tried to boot him with a “general discharge,” which would have raised red flags to employers, that effort was moving too slowly, perhaps because of insufficient evidence, and so when Alexis asked to leave, the Navy was happy to oblige with an honorable discharge, according to the Post.
Alexis also had a long arrest record. He was arrested in Seattle in 2004 after firing three shots into the tires of a car parked by construction workers in the driveway next to his home.
His family even told police that they thought he had anger management problems and likely suffered from PTSD because of his alleged rescue activities following 9/11.
Then he was arrested again in 2008 in Georgia for disorderly conduct following a nightclub brawl and his ejection from the club. The Navy even gave him an administrative sanction following that incident.
He was also arrested in Fort Worth in 2010 after firing a shot through the ceiling of his apartment. After a complaint from the frightened neighbor above him and forced entry by the police and firefighters, he was arrested for improper discharge of a firearm.
Despite his arrest records in three states, Alexis was still able to purchase a gun legally. And in addition to his family’s concerns about his mental health, he’d reportedly been treated by the Veterans Administration -– but only for the past month or so -– for sleep disorder and paranoia, including hearing voices.
Because he was honorably discharged, he was able to get a job as a government contractor and to get access to military installations like the Navy Yard.
But why did someone -– possibly the government contractor he worked for –- overlook what seem in retrospect like obvious red flags?
“A background check would not likely have disqualified Alexis [from government contract work] in any event,” says Adam Winkler, a law professor at UCLA School of Law who specializes in constitutional law, especially the Second Amendment.
“Arrests are worrisome, of course, but most background checks focus on convictions,” Winkler explains. “Just because someone is arrested doesn’t mean they are guilty of the underlying offense.”
Alexis used three guns in his attack on the Navy Yard, according to Winkler: a shotgun, a semi-automatic handgun, and an assault rifle — the AR-15. “Other mass shooters in recent years have used similar firearms,” he points out. “Semi-automatic handguns, which are very commonplace, were used in the Virginia Tech massacre. An AR-15 was used in Aurora and Newtown.”
Given that Washington, D.C., has such tight gun control laws, how did Alexis get these guns? With only an arrest record — and the Seattle incident never made it onto his record because the paperwork was lost — he had no convictions, and “most laws barring people from owning guns condition the ban on a felony conviction, not arrests,” Winkler says.
“I don’t know where Alexis lived, but that might matter,” he adds. “If he didn’t live in the District, but lived in Maryland or Virginia, he wouldn’t have had to obtain a permit just to possess a firearm.” News reports say the shooter lived in Fort Worth.
Mental Health Matters
Wouldn’t his mental health issues have raised red flags, especially since Alexis had worked for the government? “This is very tricky terrain,” Winkler says. “Privacy laws generally protect medical information like mental health issues.”
“Federal law only prohibits the mentally ill from possessing firearms when there’s been an adjudication of mental illness,” he continues. And that never happened.
“A mere diagnosis is insufficient,” Winkler says. “There would have had to have been a court ruling declaring Alexis mentally incompetent or a danger to himself and others. Apparently, [his] mental problems were never the subject of hearing. And they wouldn’t have been unless a family member or police tried to have him committed.”