The Navy Yard Shooting and Gun Control

In the wake of yesterday's tragedy, the facts are slowly coming together. Here is a summary of what we know and how it relates to U.S. gun policy. My feelings about gun control are not exactly a state secret, but I've tried to provide all the details I'm aware of that could support either side of the debate.

I avoided posting anything yesterday because first-day news coverage is seldom accurate in these situations, but bear in mind that more facts may yet come to light. I'll update this post if anything turns out to be wrong.

1. The shooter's weapon was a fairly typical shotgun.

When Aaron Alexis began his rampage, he bore a Remington 870 shotgun. This is a "pump action" weapon, meaning that between shots the user must manually cycle the action; like countless other hunters, I used a pump-action shotgun to kill my first deer. It fires more slowly than semiautomatic weapons, is not easily concealable like a handgun, and does not have the range of a rifle.

A shotgun is, however, probably the most dangerous commonly owned gun at close range, and the 870 is known for being particularly easy to customize with tactical features. It's popular with sportsmen but also with militaries and law-enforcement agencies.

There were initial reports that Alexis had an AR-15, but these appear to be false. It seems that he arrived with the shotgun and picked up one or two handguns from victims.

2. Alexis persisted despite armed resistance.

It's a matter of dispute how much crime can be deterred by the threat that victims might be armed, and many gun-rights supporters are quick to point out when a shooting takes place in a "gun-free zone" -- a place where weapons are not allowed even for people with permits. D.C. as a whole is mostly a gun-free zone, as it does not allow concealed carry at all for civilians, but the Navy Yard is heavily guarded and some people there carry guns. Given Alexis's history with the Navy, it seems likely he knew this.

3. Alexis passed numerous background checks.

He had a security clearance to enter the Navy Yard and he bought his shotgun from a licensed dealer in Virginia. He also apparently had a concealed-carry permit in Texas.

4. If the existing system worked properly, he wouldn't have passed those background checks.

Alexis had been arrested twice for gun-related incidents -- he had shot out the tires of a car in a fit of rage, and discharged a gun into his ceiling -- and yet was never convicted. The car-tire case in particular clearly should have been prosecuted, and a conviction following his arrest for "malicious mischief" would likely have amounted to a felony and barred him from owning guns. Instead, paperwork mishaps threw off the case and he was never even charged.

Reportedly, Alexis suffered from PTSD and sought treatment for psychological symptoms including hearing voices, but this information never made it into the database used for gun background checks. The mental-health database used for background checks is notoriously spotty and includes only cases where people have been declared mentally unfit in court or have been involuntarily committed.

5. In many cases the wrong person can pass a background check, even when the system does work.

The federal government bars gun ownership by various people, including felons, domestic abusers, and drug users. It's left to the states, however, to decide how to handle many cases of gun misuse. For example, in Washington State, where Alexis's car-tire incident occurred, it's only a "gross misdemeanor" to discharge a firearm in public. Even the "malicious mischief" charge on which Alexis was arrested is a felony only if the damage exceeds $750. Some states do bar gun possession for those convicted of non-felony gun offenses, though.

6. In many cases a background check isn't required.

Federal law requires a background check when a licensed dealer sells a gun, but no check is required for transactions between private individuals. This is often called the "gun-show loophole," though it has nothing to do with gun shows (licensed dealers need to run checks there too) and it's not a loophole (it's just what the law says). We should bear in mind that if background checks had kept Alexis from buying a gun from a dealer, he could have bought one elsewhere relatively easily.

Robert VerBruggen is editor of RealClearPolicy. Twitter: @RAVerBruggen

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