A row of shotguns lines the walls and loud pops reverberate from an adjacent firing range as an agent from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives talks to the store’s general manager in the back.
A typed sign on one of the gun cases announces that free rounds of ammo are available with purchase of any 22LR Rifle — “While Supplies Last.”
It is here, at Sharpshooters Small Arms Range in Lorton, that 34-year-old Aaron Alexis on Saturday came to take target practice with a store-owned rifle and then bought the Remington 870 12-gauge shotgun that investigators believe was the main weapon he used to mow down employees in the Washington Navy Yard two days later, killing 12 and injuring many more before he was killed in an exchange with law enforcement officers. An attorney for the store confirmed the Saturday visit late Tuesday afternoon.
“So far as is known, Mr. Alexis visited the Range only once, and he has had no other contact with the Range, so far as is known,” the attorney, J. Michael Slocum, said in a statement.
On Tuesday, customers at the Fairfax County store chatted with salesmen, one with a gun on his hip. In a sign of the store’s sudden national prominence, one salesman handed out copies of a prepared statement saying that the store is fully cooperating with a federal investigation of the mass shooting and that Sharpshooters fully complies with all laws related to allowed gun purchases.
Staffers are courteous, but politely decline to answer questions with specificity. Among those questions is what kinds of policies are in place, written or otherwise, to ensure compliance with state and federal laws concerning sale and purchase of a weapon.
One salesman, who declined to give his name, is holding two required forms that have been filled out by a potential buyer — one federal and one for Virginia — and says that the transaction could be completed in “anywhere from five minutes to three days,” depending on approval from the authorities.
Another indicates that the store has no written policy for completing such transactions, but says that “about once a year” state and federal inspectors visit the store to conduct compliance inspections.
CNN reported Tuesday that Alexis also purchased two boxes of ammunition for the shotgun and that FBI investigators had obtained a copy of the store’s surveillance tapes recording the shooter’s visit.
Virginia law specifies 20 conditions that would disqualify a potential gun purchaser, including an active misdemeanor or felony warrant, a conviction for a felony offense and involuntary admission to a mental health facility or involuntary order for outpatient mental health treatment. The gun check run by the store clerks turned up nothing that would prevent Alexis from purchasing the shotgun.
A spokesman for the ATF said agents conduct store inspections “not more than once a year.” Generally, the spokesman said, the inspection involves a review of gun acquisition and distribution logs, multiple sales reports, theft or loss forms, and bound books consisting of the required forms for each gun purchase. The forms contain the purchaser’s name, address, birth date, government-issued photo ID and the FBI’s criminal background check system number, along with the firearm’s make, model, serial number and an affidavit of eligibility to purchase firearms under federal law.
He said the agency is unable to speak to any issues related to Sharpshooters or the investigation of Monday’s shootings.
Asked how often a gun sold by Sharpshooters is involved with a violent crime, a store employee says, “It happens, rarely. No more than any other gun store.” Asked whether the television cameras staked out in the parking lot and visits from journalists from around the country could lead to an increase in sales, the employee chuckles and says business is “good as it is.”
The Remington 870 goes for $419 to $800, he concedes, noting that there are different versions of that particular model.
Information from ATF is limited at this early stage of the investigation. Authorities are still working to confirm reports of two other weapons recovered at the Navy Yard and their origins.