In a generic, brown-brick industrial park, wedged between the Fairfax County Parkway and the VRE train tracks, sits Sharpshooters Small Arms Range, a combination gun store and shooting range in Newington. It is not the closest gun store to Washington — Nova Firearms in McLean claims to be “the only gun shop inside the Beltway” — but it was probably the easiest to get to for a computer technician from out of town, staying in a Residence Inn in Southwest DC. So on a sunny Saturday, Aaron Alexis drove the 16.3 miles down I-95 to Newington and bought the Remington 870 shotgun that he would use two days later to launch his murderous rampage at the Washington Navy Yard.
On Monday night, federal investigators visited Sharpshooters with the news that a gun they had just sold was used in the latest mass shooting. They reviewed the store’s records and surveillance tapes, and found everything in order. Then the store braced for the inevitable media blitz on Tuesday morning.
The blitz was really just a handful of reporters and two TV cameras, and Sharpshooters allowed us to mill about the store for a couple of hours while their lawyer drafted a statement. The employees were cordial, careful not to comment, resigned to a moment in the spotlight for their part in the storm that follows such tragedies. There was no particular sense of mourning or regret, just a resolute belief that the safe and proper use of guns was nothing to be ashamed of.
A large selection of new and used handguns, rifles and shotguns was on display, and the store is clean and well-organized. A gun store has been there since 1986, employees said, and for years it was called Gilbert’s. The industrial park is in Newington but has a Lorton mailing address so it’s been identified as a Lorton store, though it’s really a few miles north of the Lorton area of Fairfax County.
Business was brisk as soon as the store opened at 10 a.m. Tuesday, both with customers interested in firearms and gun accessories, and also with gun owners and law enforcement members coming in to fire in one of Sharpshooters’ 16 shooting lanes. Alexis took a turn in the shooting range on Saturday, the store’s lawyer later said.
Alexis rented a rifle and purchased ammunition, J. Michael Slocum, the store’s lawyer, said. A shooting session costs $25 without a membership. Though there was some chatter that Alexis tried to buy an AR-15, the rifle used in other mass shootings, Slocum said he had “no information that he tried to buy an AR-15.”
UPDATE, Wednesday, 1 p.m.: Slocum said that Alexis rented an AR-15 and used that on the Sharpshooters’ firing range. But when he was done, he did not ask about buying it. Instead, he asked about buying a handgun.
Virginia Federal laws do not allow dealers to sell handguns directly to out-of-state customers, and Alexis was told a handgun would have to be shipped to a licensed dealer in his home state. However, out-of-state customers can purchase rifles and shotguns in Virginia, at which point Alexis chose the Remington shotgun.
Next, Alexis had to submit to a computerized background check administered by the Virginia State Police. The check runs through four Virginia data bases for criminal, domestic relations and mental health data, and then the federal National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS), which searches all manner of national crime, fugitive and immigration data bases. Alexis passed the check, Slocum said. So far, no media accounts have found any criminal convictions or formal mental health reports which would have prevented him from buying a gun in Virginia.
Alexis then bought a Remington 870 shotgun, Slocum said. It’s a seven-shot pump-action firearm that retails for between $300 and $600, depending on which model you get. He bought two boxes of shells, or 24 rounds, Slocum said. And that appears to be the only time Alexis was in the store, as far as Sharpshooters knows. The store is licensed and reputable, and a Washington Post investigation a couple of years ago about stores who sold “crime guns” did not turn up anything significant about Sharpshooters. But now Aaron Alexis has dragged them into the history books anyway.