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Federal gun laws failed to block Washington Navy Yard shooter

The Washington Post, AP

U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel intends to order a security review at all American military bases worldwide, a senior Pentagon official said Tuesday, a day after a contract worker — who had obtained a security clearance despite a history of violent behavior — killed 12 people in a shooting rampage at the Washington Navy Yard.

Investigators are still working to uncover a motive.

Aaron Alexis, a 34-year-old military contractor and former U.S. Navy reservist, had a history of violent outbursts, was at least twice accused of firing guns in anger and was in the early stages of treatment for serious mental problems, according to court records and law enforcement officials.

But he apparently managed to exploit seams in the patchwork of complicated U.S. gun laws designed to keep weapons out of the hands of dangerous people. Alexis was able to buy a shotgun in Virginia with out of state identification, even though that would have prevented him from purchasing a handgun.

Meanwhile, a picture emerged Tuesday of Alexis as an agitated and erratic man whose behavior and mental state repeatedly came to authorities’ attention but apparently never affected his security clearance to do work for the Department of Defense.

An information technology employee at a defense-related computer company, Alexis used a valid pass Monday to get into the Navy Yard. Officials said that besides being armed with the shotgun, he also took a handgun from a law officer.

Valerie Parlave, head of the FBI’s Washington field office, said Alexis was not carrying an AR-15 assault rifle when he arrived, as had been previously reported by some news media. A day after the assault, the motive was still a mystery.

It is illegal for gun dealers to sell handguns to such out of state buyers, but the Firearms Owners’ Protection Act, passed by Congress in 1986, opened up interstate sales for shotguns and rifles. Virginia gun laws require only that an out of state buyer show valid identification, pass a background check and otherwise abide by state laws to buy a shotgun in the state. Alexis was never prosecuted for two misdemeanor charges involving guns.

“What the 1986 Firearms Owners’ Protection Act did was it made it more convenient for gun buyers,” said Kristen Rand, legislative director at the Violence Policy Center.

Alexis bought the shotgun at Sharpshooters Small Arms Range in Lorton, Virginia, on Saturday, according to a statement from the attorney for the gun range. Michael Slocum said in an email that Alexis rented a rifle, bought bullets and used the range before buying the shotgun and 24 shells. He said Alexis passed a federal background check.

Federal gun laws bar the mentally ill from legally buying guns from licensed dealers. But the law requires that someone be involuntarily committed to a mental health facility or declared mentally ill by a judge, and that information must be reported to the FBI in order to appear on background checks. In the wake of the 2007 mass shooting at Virginia Tech, state authorities changed state laws to make it tougher for the mentally ill to buy guns in the state.

But Alexis was never declared mentally ill by a judge or committed to a hospital. He was being treated by the Veterans Administration as recently as August, according to two law enforcement officials, but the navy had not declared him mentally unfit.

He suffered serious mental problems, including paranoia and hearing voices in his head, and a sleep disorder, officials said.

After the December massacre at a Connecticut elementary school, U.S. lawmakers pushed to overhaul gun laws. Among the proposals was a ban on military-style rifles, including the popular AR-15, and high-capacity ammunition magazines. There was also a plan to expand background checks to make sure anyone who wanted a gun got the approval of the federal government.

No legislation has moved forward in Congress, despite urgent pleas from President Barack Obama, some lawmakers and victims’ families. Obama has made a few narrow administrative changes, but those are not likely to impact the kinds of guns most often found at crime scenes.

A month before Monday’s rampage, Alexis complained to police in Rhode Island that people were talking to him through the walls and ceilings of his hotel rooms and sending microwave vibrations into his body to deprive him of sleep.

Alexis told police he got into an argument with someone as he was getting on a flight from Virginia to Rhode Island, where he was working as a naval contractor, and he said the person sent three people to follow and harass him.

He said he heard voices talking to him through a wall while at one hotel so he changed hotels twice, but the voices followed him, according to the Newport, Rhode Island police report. He said he feared they might harm him. He also “stated that the individuals are using ‘some sort of microwave machine’ to send vibrations through the ceiling, penetrating his body so he cannot fall asleep.”

Later that day, Newport police alerted the Rhode Island naval station and sent a copy of the police report, Lt. William Fitzgerald said Thursday.

Alexis traveled to the Washington area about two weeks after the Rhode Island incident and had been staying at hotels.

The assault is raising more questions about the adequacy of the background checks done on contract employees who hold security clearances — an issue that came up recently with National Security Agency leaker Edward Snowden.

Navy Secretary Ray Mabus ordered two security reviews Tuesday of how well the navy protects its bases and how accurately it screens its workers. Similarly, Obama has ordered the White House budget office to examine security standards for government contractors and employees across federal agencies.

Alexis had run-ins with the law in 2004 and 2010 in Texas and Seattle after he was accused of firing a gun in anger. His bouts of insubordination, disorderly conduct and being absent from work without authorization prompted the navy to grant him an early — but honorable — discharge in 2011 after nearly four years as a full-time reservist, authorities said.

He joined the Florida-based IT consulting firm The Experts in September 2012, leaving a few months later to return to school. He returned in June to do part-time work at the Washington Navy Yard as a subcontractor, helping the military update computer systems.

The Experts CEO Thomas Hoshko said Alexis had “no personal issues,” and he confirmed that Alexis had been granted a “secret” clearance by the Defense Security Service five years ago. Alexis’ background check “came back clear,” Hoshko said.