The FBI has said it presumes Friday’s shooting at Naval Air Station Pensacola in Florida was an act of terrorism. But what wasn’t a crime is how the gunman, a 21-year-old Saudi national named Mohammed Alshamrani, obtained a gun in the first place.
“It was purchased lawfully,” FBI Special Agent in Charge Rachel Rojas said of the 9mm Glock handgun Alshamrani, a member of the Royal Saudi Air Force, used to kill three 3 US sailors. The gun was purchased in Florida, Rojas said Sunday.
“Everyone is very perplexed by that, I’ll just be very candid with you,” Escambia County, Florida, Sheriff David Morgan told CNN in an interview Tuesday. He had to ask the sheriff’s office attorneys to research the law that allowed Alshamrani to buy a gun in the United States, he said.
“Had you asked me off the cuff, ‘Is it possible for a non-US citizen to legally purchase a firearm?’ I most likely would have told you no,” Morgan said.
Here’s how the gunman was able to buy the gun, despite his status as a foreign national.
The gunman was issued a hunting license
Any non-immigrant in the United States on a non-immigrant visa can get a firearm under certain conditions, according to federal law.
In this case, Alshamrani was issued a Florida hunting license by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC), the FBI field office in Jacksonville said Tuesday. Possessing a hunting license is one of a handful of ways non-immigrants can obtain a gun.
The hunting license allowed Alshamrani to purchase a gun and ammunition from a licensed Florida firearms dealer. And he did just that on July 20, buying the gun from a licensed dealer, the FBI said Tuesday, without naming the dealer.
A spokeswoman for the FWC confirmed Alshamrani was issued a Florida resident hunting license in accordance with state law. Anyone who has made Florida their only state of residence with a valid ID and verified Florida residence is considered a “resident,” the FWC’s website says, and would be eligible for the license.
It’s possible Alshamrani was qualified to posses a firearm “under other exceptions as well,” the FBI Jacksonville said in a tweet Tuesday.
Other exceptions for non-immigrants who want to have a gun include being the official representative of a foreign government or a foreign law enforcement officer in the United States on official business, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives says on its website.
FBI warned of the exception in May, source says
The FBI issued a bulletin in May warning US companies about the hunting license loophole, according to a source familiar with the report. It said that exception could be exploited by terrorist or criminal elements to purchase firearms to be used in attacks.
The report, titled “Federal Hunting License Exception Could be Exploited by Extremists or Criminal Actors Seeking to Obtain Firearms for Violent Attacks,” was issued to private sector partners by the bureau’s private sector outreach team, the source said.
The bulletin instructed the recipients to contact law enforcement if they became suspicious of firearms purchasers, according to the source.
It’s unclear whether the bulletin went to the Florida firearms dealer the FBI said sold the gun to Alshamrani on July 20.
The report included a graphic explaining that only five states — Hawaii, Illinois, Maine, Massachusetts and New York — had enacted legislation prohibiting non-immigrant visa holders from purchasing or possessing firearms.
The FBI routinely provides intelligence bulletins to public and private sector entities about possible threats and trends observed by the bureau’s intelligence analysts, the source noted.
An FBI spokesperson declined to comment when asked about the report.
Yahoo News first reported on the FBI bulletin.
‘What’s the purpose for that law?’
Sheriff Morgan told CNN he believes lawmakers at both the state and federal levels would be asking themselves questions about the law that allowed Alshamrani to legally purchase a weapon.
“Is that appropriate? Should that law remain? Should it be modified and/or eliminated? What’s the purpose for that law?” he said. “I think that’s what many legislators are going to be looking at.”
Asked whether law enforcement was frustrated by the revelation, Morgan used an analogy, saying mechanics joke that cars are made by engineers who don’t have to work on them.
“Laws are passed by people who never have to enforce them,” he said. “In law enforcement, we have to live with it from the enforcement arm. And sadly, our citizens are the ones that bear the brunt of those bad decisions.”