September 17, 2013

CNN correspondent Pamela Brown just reported on air that Aaron Alexis, the deceased suspect in the Navy Yard shootings, entered the facility yesterday armed with a shotgun. Citing the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms as well as law enforcement sources, Brown reported that the gunman had tried to purchase an AR-15 at a gun shop in Northern Virginia but was turned down. Two pistols were also recovered.

So why all the reports about the gunman and an AR-15? This is how Brown explained it: “Military personnel that were responding to the shooting were carrying maybe one or more AR-15s and that’s where the confusion came from, initially from law enforcement. That’s why that was reported.”

Reported far and wide, that is. A Nexis search — “ar-15 and gunman and ‘navy yard’” — turned up nearly 270 articles. In the mix, the AR-15 plays a role in several ways. Either the guy was “armed” with the AR-15 or it was instrumental in his terrorizing a cafeteria or it was found alongside him. It’s an enormous data point, too, given that the AR-15 was used in the Newtown and Aurora, Colo., mass killings.

Police respond to Navy Yard shooting
Police respond to the report of a shooting at the Navy Yard in Washington, DC, September 16, 2013. (Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images)

Let’s take a loot at some of the reporting on the AR-15.

A CNN report expressed some circumspection on the matter: “A U.S. law enforcement official said Monday that gunman Aaron Alexis unleashed a barrage of bullets using an AR-15, a rifle and a semi-automatic handgun.”

But the same story noted: “The sources, who have detailed knowledge of the investigation, cautioned that initial information that an AR-15 was used in the shootings may have been incorrect. It is believed that Alexis had rented an AR-15, but returned it before Monday morning’s shootings.”

CNN wasn’t uniformly equivocal on the matter of the AR-15, however. This morning, CNN’s John Berman said on the network’s program “Early Start”: “Alexis is the only gunman now, officials say. Yesterday, there was word that there was maybe a second, a third possible person involved in the attack. That is no longer the case. Officials say that Aaron Alexis was a lone gunman. This is what we know about him this morning. We know that he had an AR-15, a semi-automatic rifle. He also had a different rifle and a glock, that is a handgun with him. It’s believed that the AR-15 was the main murder weapon used from the atrium above. That is also the weapon you’ll remember used by Adam Lanza in the Newtown massacre and James Holmes in Aurora. That’s the Colorado movie theater massacre.”

The Associated Press:

Alexis carried three weapons: an AR-15 assault rifle, a shotgun, and a handgun that he took from a police officer at the scene, according to two federal law enforcement officials who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the investigation. The AR-15 is the same type of rifle used in last year’s mass shooting at a Newtown, Conn., elementary school that killed 20 students and six women. The weapon was also used in the shooting at a Colorado movie theater that killed 12 and wounded 70.

The Los Angeles Times:

More than 3,000 workers were locked down in their offices while police officers, Navy security guards and FBI agents fought a running gun battle with the shooter, who was armed with an AR-15 assault rifle, a shotgun and a handgun. Investigators think Alexis began the assault with only the shotgun and that he took the AR-15 and handgun from people he shot, a U.S. official said.

International Herald Tribune:

There were several identification cards found around the dead man, and it took officials time to sort out his identify, the official said. Ultimately, the authorities had to identify him using his fingerprints, according to the official. Three weapons were also found on the suspect – an AR-15 assault rifle, a shotgun and a semiautomatic pistol, the official said.

The Philadelphia Daily News

THIS TIME, the killer wore blue, and he reportedly used an AR-15 assault rifle and possibly a handgun and a shotgun as he rained down death into an office cafeteria and randomly fired at passers-by in the third-floor hallway.

The New York Times:

Three weapons were found on Mr. Alexis: an AR-15 assault rifle, a shotgun and a semiautomatic pistol, a senior law enforcement officer said. It was unclear whether he had brought all the guns with him, another law enforcement official said, or if he had taken one or more of them from his victims.

The Washington Post (editorial):

How did he acquire his weapons (an AR-15 assault rifle, a shotgun and a semiautomatic pistol were reportedly found on him), and how did he bring them onto a gated facility? What was to be learned about security procedures and the police response?

Fox News (Greta Van Susteren interviews Army Major General (Ret.) Bob Scales):

VAN SUSTEREN: How easy is it to have an AR-15? That’s what I don’t get.

SCALES: That’s what I don’t get either. But if he’s just walking through masses at the beginning of rush hour and he has a backpack on his back or perhaps he’s carrying a package of some sort, because an AR-15 can be broken down. It’s conceivable he could have it in a backpack or some other type of container. And most likely if he’s got one of these he won’t be searched.

McClatchy-Tribune News Service: “The gunman was described by witnesses as carrying an AR-15 assault rifle, a double-barrel shotgun and a handgun.”

The Erik Wemple Blog has no independent reporting on the AR-15 and the Navy Yard shooting — the excerpts above merely demonstrate just how widely reported the use of an AR-15 was. But if CNN is right that previous reporting on the weapon was mistaken, then CNN’s Piers Morgan may have to issue some corrections this evening. This weapon, after all, was a central talking point in Morgan’s Monday night program. At one point, in a debate with gun-rights advocated, Morgan pinned his whole spiel on the AR-15. Addressing author John Lott (“More Guns, Less Crime: Understanding Crime and Gun Control Laws”), Morgan riffed:

But the real problem though isn’t it, John Lott and you and I have debated this after almost every mass shooting in the last three years. Is it you guys just never accept that the gun itself can’t ever be part of the problem. Is that your answer to all these shootings is on more people? Now, let’s take what happened to them because the NRA has been furiously silent today. NRA doesn’t want to say anything about this. And here’s why. Because the Washington Navy Yard is heavily secured, it is crawling in arms security, people, arms, police. And yet it was still infiltrated by a man with a legally purchased AR-15, who just committed the same kind of atrocity as we saw at Sandy Hook, and Aurora. And yet, I’m sure, John Lott, you’re going to explain to me now why the solution is not to deal with that gun which keeps being used to do these atrocities, but is to arm even more people in that building. Is that right?

Perhaps Morgan should have waited a day or so to hop into the gun-control debate.

Whatever the case, Lott tells the Erik Wemple Blog that the new reporting about the AR-15 doesn’t matter that much: “Whether an AR-15 was used may cause some embarrassment for someone such as Senator Feinstein who was already calling for her ban on a specific list of ‘assault weapons,’ but it wouldn’t have made much of a difference in my discussion with Piers last night. Piers makes a big deal about AR-15s, but if AR-15s disappeared tomorrow, whatever new gun was used would have been the focus of attention,” argues Lott in an e-mail.

Erik Wemple writes the Erik Wemple blog, where he reports and opines on media organizations of all sorts.