Aaron Alexis told police he heard voices in his head and “microwave vibrations” prevented him from sleeping. He was an avid player of violent video games and faced multiple disciplinary actions while in the Navy Reserve.
But none of that stopped him from securing credentials to enter the Washington Navy Yard and legally buying a gun to slaughter 12 innocent people.
Details about the 34-year-old Navy Yard gunman’s life revived a debate often overlooked in Washington’s partisan gun squabbles: the connection between mental illness and gun crimes that concerns advocates on both sides of the issue.
While Democrats pressed anew Tuesday for gun control laws that have little chance of passing Congress, issues surrounding mental health and screening, which also played a major role in the 2007 Virginia Tech massacre, remain untouched in the nation’s capital.
The disconnect played out on the political stage while police provided a clearer picture of how Alexis entered the complex Monday with just one weapon: a Remington 870 12-gauge shotgun that he is suspected of buying at Sharpshooters Small Arms Range in Lorton a week earlier.
Valerie Parlave, assistant director in charge of the FBI’s Washington field office, said Alexis may have obtained a handgun once inside the facility. Law enforcement officials also have told The Washington Times that they are investigating whether Alexis also used two handguns, likely picked up from victims, as the shooting unfolded.
Officials also dismissed reports that Alexis used an AR-15 assault rifle.
“We do not have any information at this time that he had an AR-15 in his possession. We also believe Mr. Alexis may have gained access to a handgun once inside the facility,” Ms. Parlave said.
A senior law enforcement official told The Washington Times that Alexis is believed to have concealed his Remington 870 shotgun in a bag, disassembling the weapon into two parts and then reassembling it in a bathroom after gaining entry to the complex.
He then made his way to the fourth floor of Building 197 and began shooting victims down below in an atrium cafeteria.
The official said there would have been no reason for Navy Yard security to search the gunman’s bag because he had a credential to access the building as a contractor.
Beyond the details of Alexis’ checkered past — which includes at least three arrests, including two involving firearms — a portrait of the killer, along with what may have driven him to such unspeakable violence, began to come to light. It is raising fresh questions about the links between mental illness and access to guns, an issue that both sides of the gun control debate want to address.
Alexis, who was fatally shot by police, was by all accounts a troubled, nomadic figure. Psychologists said he may have been suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder after living in New York City during the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, in addition to paranoia, self-described “anger-fueled blackouts” and other issues.
Alexis also reportedly was angry over his military benefits, or lack thereof, as a result of his five-year stint as a Navy reservist.
“It seemed like a perfect storm,” said Brad Bushman, a professor of communication and psychology at Ohio State University and a specialist in the causes of human aggression and violence. “We’ll never know what caused him to engage in the shooting rampage, but there are a number of risk factors that have emerged.”
Chief among those factors is Alexis’ clear struggle with mental illness.
On Aug. 7, he told police in Newport, R.I., that people were talking to him through the walls and ceilings of his hotel, and were sending vibrations into his body to keep him from sleeping.
Professionals say the fact that Alexis acted out his rage at a Navy facility rather than at “soft” locations such as a movie theater or an elementary school offers clues into his frame of mind and motivations.
“He did go to a very dangerous facility, a place that would be quite dangerous for him. He’s going to a place where he most likely will be jeopardizing his own life,” said Richard Shadick, director of the counseling center and an associate professor of psychology at Pace University in New York City. “This was not a movie theater where you can get in and get out. This is a highly guarded facility. There most likely was some self-destructive intent here.”
FBI officials and others, citing the ongoing investigation, declined to comment on those apparent mental issues.
“We continue to look into Mr. Alexis’ past,” Ms. Parlave told reporters.
As for his recent movements, authorities confirmed that he arrived in Washington on Aug. 25 and stayed in hotels in the past few weeks.
Guns and mental health
In the immediate aftermath of the shooting, top lawmakers such as Sen. Dianne Feinstein, California Democrat, again raised the issue of gun violence in America and the need for tighter restrictions on firearms purchases.
Alexis easily passed federal and state background checks when purchasing the firearms, despite having twice been arrested on gun-related charges, once in Fort Worth, Texas, and once in Seattle in 2004. His military clearance also likely aided his ability to secure weapons.
Despite Mrs. Feinstein’s desire to address the larger issue of access to guns, shared by President Obama and many others, any significant gun control measures have little or no shot of clearing Congress. A bill to expand background checks, brought forward as a result of the December shooting rampage in Newtown, Conn., failed in the Senate in April.
Making it even more difficult, two Democratic state senators in Colorado were ousted from office in recall elections last week backed by the National Rifle Association.
But the Navy Yard shooting perhaps presents an opportunity for the NRA and its critics to find common ground; both sides agree that mental health must be addressed and that those suffering from such problems must not be allowed to purchase or otherwise acquire guns.
Asked about gun control efforts, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat, expressed openness to refocusing his attention on a package that would improve mental health treatment, including early intervention in schools.
“I would be willing to do that — anything we can do to focus attention on the senseless killings that take place,” Mr. Reid said.
Sen. Richard Blumenthal, Connecticut Democrat, echoed those sentiments during an interview on CNN.
“The mental health aspect of this senseless, horrific tragedy ought to be front and center and a basis for action.”
The problem, professionals say, is that mental health is a complex issue that requires an equally complex solution. It also requires uncomfortable national debate about major spending increases and intrusive government powers.
Gun control, by contrast, appeals as a cheap, easy fix.
“Individuals who suffer from mental illness require a host of different types of support. There needs to be access to hospitals on an as-needed basis. There needs to be outpatient facilities, programs that can monitor individuals, trained experts to work with them. All of this requires money — lots and lots of money,” Mr. Shadick said. “A bill that restricts guns doesn’t require a whole lot of money. It’s a relatively simple step. Ideally that would solve the problem, but it won’t.”
While many details of motives and his past remain unclear, authorities say, Alexis had the proper credentials to enter the sprawling Navy Yard complex. He held a “secret” security clearance as a sailor.
The FBI confirmed Tuesday that he “had legitimate access to the Navy Yard as a result as a contractor.”
“He utilized a valid pass to gain entry to the building,” Ms. Parlave said.
His access to the building came in the form of a “common access card” given by the Defense Department to civilian employees and some contractors.
He reportedly had a valid pass during his active stint in the Navy. After it ended, he obtained another one as a civilian contractor with the Experts, a company hired by Hewlett-Packard for a contract with the Navy.
Being in the Navy and acquiring that contractor pass would require thorough background checks. Navy officials said Tuesday there was nothing in Alexis’ background that caused concern, even the multiple arrests, none of which resulted in a conviction.
Despite multiple violations of military rules, including for insubordination, Alexis also received an honorable discharge from the Navy because military officials did not have the evidence to support a less-than-honorable discharge.
There still are unanswered questions about his Navy career, as there are with most of his life and around his mental state at the time of the shooting spree.
“There’s a very complex psychiatric history here,” Mr. Shadick said.
• Dave Boyer and Kristina Wong contributed to this report.