Pentagon shooter's gun had many previous owners

By Josh White and Sari Horwitz
Washington Post Staff Writers
Monday, March 15, 2010

One of the handguns that John Patrick Bedell used to shoot two Pentagon police officers this month was seized five years ago by a Tennessee police department that later traded the weapon to a licensed gun distributor in Georgia, law enforcement sources said Sunday.

The Sturm, Ruger & Co. 9mm gun ended up with Bedell, 36, not long before he opened fire at the Pentagon's Metro entrance March 4, officials said. Law enforcement officials aren't sure how Bedell got the weapon, but they were able to track it to a Las Vegas gun show, where it was sold last year to a private individual.

That person, authorities said, sold the gun to a third person, and the trail went cold there until police found it in Bedell's hands outside the Pentagon.

In most cases, private transactions at gun shows and other venues do not require sellers to have licenses or maintain records, deeming the sales unregulated, and would not have had Bedell -- who had a history of mental illness -- undergo the kind of background check he might have faced at a store. The discovery that one of Bedell's guns passed through the Memphis Police Department was first reported by the Associated Press on Sunday.

Bedell, who went by Patrick, wounded two Pentagon police officers at a checkpoint outside the Pentagon before three officers opened fire and killed him in what has been characterized as a successful defense of the facility. Bedell apparently drove across the country from his home in California, parked at a nearby mall and approached the Pentagon on foot. He opened fire without warning, authorities have said since the shootings.

It is unclear how or when Bedell obtained the second weapon, which law enforcement officials said was a Taurus 9mm handgun. Officials traced that weapon back to a gun dealer in California who legally sold the weapon to an individual before going out of business in the late 1980s. The gun then was sold into the secondary market and could have changed hands countless times over the past two decades.

The AP story also linked another weapon previously seized by the Memphis police to a courthouse shooting in Las Vegas in January.

Some police departments destroy confiscated weapons. But the Memphis department, and others across the country, legally sell or trade confiscated weapons to licensed dealers.

Officer Karen Rudolph, a spokeswoman for the Memphis police, told AP that one gun used by Bedell at the Pentagon had been in the department's custody for years before the department traded it to a licensed dealer in 2008 for a gun better suited for police work. She said that such trades can save taxpayer money. The Washington Post could not reach Rudolph on Sunday.

Law enforcement officials said Sunday that the gun, which was sold at a Memphis gun store, originally went into police custody April 18, 2005, when the 9mm Ruger was found loaded under the seat of a car during a traffic stop. The man was charged with unlawful possession of a weapon.

Following a court-approved policy of selling seized guns, police traded the weapon to a distributor in Rossville, Ga., on Dec. 6, 2008, and the distributor quickly sold and shipped it to another gun distributor in Seasterville, Penn., law enforcement officials said. In early 2009, that distributor again sold the gun, this time to a gun store in Las Vegas, which sold it legally to an individual.

That person, law enforcement sources said, sold the weapon to someone else at a gun show. One or more private sales then took place, but authorities could not track them.

Private sales would have allowed Bedell to buy a weapon even though he was precluded from ownership due to his history of mental illness. Bedell's family said he had developed a paranoia about the government and had received treatment for mental health problems. He had also frequently used marijuana and had been arrested for drug possession.

Bedell's brother, Jeffrey Bedell, said in an interview days after the shooting that he learned of his brother's interest in guns last month, when the family discovered that he had a credit card charge at a gun shop near Sacramento. The family said he had apparently tried to buy a gun, but California authorities barred him from the purchase after he failed a background check.

"I was very surprised," Jeffrey Bedell said. "There was no reason he needed one."

Bedell also made a purchase at a Washington area gun shop just before the March 4 shooting, his family said.

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