Motive for shooting unclear as gunman’s past emerges

Investigators find a history of mental illness, anger and brushes with the law

An armed guard stands outside the Washington DC naval facility following Monday’s shootings. Aaron Alexis’s job loss is being considered as a triggering factor for his killings. Photograph: Mark Wilson/Getty Images

An armed guard stands outside the Washington DC naval facility following Monday’s shootings. Aaron Alexis’s job loss is being considered as a triggering factor for his killings. Photograph: Mark Wilson/Getty Images


The latest US mass shooting that killed 12 and wounded eight people at a Washington DC naval facility has again raised questions about gun controls and background checks on troubled individuals with a history of disturbances.

As Washington police named the victims of Monday’s gun rampage, attention shifted to the motives of suspected gunman Aaron Alexis who was killed by police after “multiple” gun fights and how his criminal record and violent behaviour did not sound alarm bells when approving his official security clearance at a military facility.

A clearer picture is emerging of the 34-year-old military contractor’s background, as investigators continued to piece together his movements before he legally entered the Navy Yard with a valid identification badge as a defence contractor employees and fired at workers in a cafeteria.

Killing spree
Investigators are still trying to determine a motive for Alexis’s killing spree, the worst loss of life in a single incident in the Washington DC area since the September 11th, 2001, attack on the Pentagon and the deadliest mass shooting at a US military facility since the Fort Hood killings in Texas in 2009.

Alexis was portrayed by friends and in previous police reports as a troubled individual with mental health problems and a gun-carrying, heavy drinker who had several brushes with the law.

Police records show that Alexis was arrested in 2004 in Seattle for allegedly shooting the tyres on a car in what he described as a “black-out fuelled by anger”. Alexis’s father later told police that his son had “experienced anger-management problems” that his family believed were associated with post-traumatic stress disorder from his participation in rescue attempts on September 11th.

In 2008, Alexis was cited by police for disorderly conduct in an Atlanta nightclub where he damaged furnishings inside and shouted profanities outside.

Two years later, he was arrested in Texas for shooting his gun into an upstairs neighbour’s apartment. He escaped prosecution, claiming the firearm went off as he was cleaning it. This run-in with police appears to have led to the US navy to seek his discharge as a navy reservist on January 31st, 2011.

The navy said this week, correcting an earlier assertion, that he applied on his own to leave the navy reserve in early 2011 and this request for a honourable discharge was granted after serving four years.

A navy official quoted in US media said Alexis had shown “a pattern of misconduct” while in service.

In more recent times, Alexis had been working as a civilian contractor for a subcontracting business of computer company Hewlett-Packard called “The Experts”. This would have given him the legal identification and security clearance to enter military facilities such as the Washington Navy Yard.

Investigators were looking into whether Alexis’s job was one of the support roles moved to Colorado as a result of the computer company’s equipment that he serviced being moved to Denver last month. They are examining whether the loss of his job gave Alexis a grudge to carry out the shootings.

Crucially, Alexis’s past contacts with police did not raise warning signs in background checks on gun purchases. None of his previous offences led to any charges or felony convictions that would have prohibited him from purchasing a gun from a federally licensed gun dealer. Investigators were reported to have found that Alexis had legally bought a shotgun at a firearms dealer in Virginia last week.

Alexis, a practising Buddhist, appears to have brought this shotgun with him to the naval facility on Monday. Investigators were still trying to determine whether he also brought an AR15 assault rifle and semi-automatic pistol that were found on him or whether he picked these up at the facility.

While Alexis had been receiving mental health treatment through a veterans’ group since August, seeking treatment or being diagnosed with a mental illness would not have stopped him buying a firearm. He was reported to be suffering from paranoia and a sleep disorder, and hearing voices.

One area of the investigation that raises more questions was how an armed man could enter the navy yard, the largest of five navy command centres in the US. “I don’t think we know that,” said Valerie Parlave, the assistant FBI director in charge of the agency’s Washington DC field office.

Security guards man the main entrance to the facility and check access cards, but with the right ID badges pre-approved personnel can avoid these guards through a side-door from a garage. Alexis had security clearance that was approved by military security and updated as recently as July.

US congressman Michael Turner has called for the publication of a government audit report showing how the navy, in an attempt to cut costs, reduced security checks for outside contractors at the Navy Yard and other military facilities, potentially allowing convicted felons to gain unrestricted access.

The latest American gun atrocity, which has shocked the US capital, is unlikely to rally political support for tighter gun controls, despite the shootings occurring on the doorstep of the US Congress.

Changes to background checks on gun purchases and curbs on semi-automatic weaponry proposed following the Newtown school shootings in Connecticut that left 20 children dead were voted down by Congress earlier this year.