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Rifle in Santa Monica shooting was pieced together, sources say

June 12, 2013|By Andrew Blankstein and Matt Stevens
  • A table of evidence collected in the Santa Monica shooting investigation includes a .44-caliber handgun and the upper receiver of an AR-15-style rifle.
A table of evidence collected in the Santa Monica shooting investigation… (Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles…)

The semiautomatic weapon used in the Santa Monica shooting rampage appears to have been put together from various parts, possibly in an attempt to circumvent the state’s restrictions on such guns, law enforcement sources said Wednesday.

Although certain types of AR-15-style rifles are banned in California, it’s legal to purchase parts used to assemble and customize the guns. Santa Monica police have said John Zawahri, 23, used an AR-15-style gun during the attack and was also carrying a .44-caliber handgun.

The sources, who spoke on the condition of annoymity because the case was ongoing, said detectives are still trying to figure out how the gun was put together and whether Zawahri obtained it whole or assembled it himself.

Zawahri killed five people last Friday in an attack that started at his father’s home and ended at Santa Monica College, when police fatally wounded him in the school’s library.

Sources said Wednesday that Zawahri fired about 100 shots during the rampage, which lasted about 10 minutes. He fired at passing cars, a bus, pedestrians and police. Authorities have said he had access to more than 1,300 rounds of ammunition.

Santa Monica Police Department investigators, working with the Federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives and the California Department of Justice, are trying trace where the parts came from. The parts are typically available at gun shows as well as on Internet sites and from mail-order catalogues.

Zawajari’s rifle appeared to be modified so that it could fire more rounds, the sources said. Police said he had 40 magazines capable of holding 30 rounds each during the ramage.

California law outlaws the commerce of AR-15 weapons that have a magazine capacity of more than 10 rounds, said Garen Wintemute, Director of the UC Davis Violence Prevention Research Program. The state also bans specific features of assault weapons, including high-volume detachable magazines, folding, telescopic or detachable stocks or a threaded barrel.

Experts say that buying a legal, already assembled AR-15, and then taking it apart and rebuilding it to custom specifications is common.

AR-15s can snap apart easily with a tool or even a bullet.

The concern, Wintemute said, is that some people buy an unfinished AR-15 base receiver and then build out the weapon without registering it.

“People who really push the envelope on the law like to play with the question, ‘How finished does that lower receiver have to be to be considered a firearm?’ " he said. “There’s a point at which it is just a block of steel.”

Anti-gun advocates have been raising alarms about illegal weapons that were put together with legally obtainable parts.

The AR-15 rifle was the type of gun used by shooters in an Aurora, CO movie theatre shooting and at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown. It’s unclear how exactly those rifles were modified.

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