The Naval Yard Tragedy: A Failure of Law or a Failure of Application?

BY NICHOLAS ESSER — In the wake of the tragedy of the Naval Yard shooting three weeks ago, there has been a great deal of discussion about Virginia’s gun laws. According to various news sources, the shooter—Aaron Alexis—purchased his weapon from a gun store in Virginia and carried it with him into Washington DC. Virginia does not require background checks for the purchase of long guns such as rifles and shotguns.[1] Indeed the State Constitution mirrors the 2nd Amendment of the United States Constitution in Article One Section Thirteen: “the right of the people to bear arms shall not be infringed.”[2] However, this does not mean that Virginia has lax controls placed upon the sale, possession, and use of such weapons. 18.2 §308.2:2 of the Virginia State Code requires a criminal history record check for the transfer of certain firearms.[3] The background check required by this section is carried out by the State Police and includes searching for any events that would disqualify the purchaser.[4] The section also provides that persons, who are citizens of the United States, even if they are from another state, may purchase rifles and shotguns.[5] All that is required is proof of citizenship and a government issued identification.[6]

Aaron Alexis, an hourly wage computer technician and former Naval Reservist, is a man of a troubled past. May 6, 2004 saw Alexis staring down a construction worker in Seattle before pulling out his gun in a blind rage and shooting out the tires of the man’s Honda Accord.[7] The Seattle Police arrested Alexis, who claimed that he couldn’t remember shooting the gun until an hour after the event.[8] The Seattle Police referred the case to Seattle Municipal Court, but he was never prosecuted.[9] Therefore, there is no record of this event on Alexis’s criminal profile. Unfortunately this was not an isolated event.

The police had to visit Alexis again in another gun related incident. In 2010, the Fort Worth Police responded to a call for a domestic discharge of a firearm where Alexis had barely missed his upstairs neighbor by a few feet.[10] The Tarrant County District Attorney’s office classified it as an accidental discharge and did not prosecute the matter.[11] Again, Alexis escaped a gun related charge without anything on his record.

Applying Alexis’ background to the laws in place in the state of Virginia, there is nothing to stop Alexis from acquiring whatever weapon he desired. Like most states, Virginia does not require a background check or cool down period for the purchase of a long gun such as a shotgun.[12] Even if Alexis had chosen to obtain a handgun, which requires both an extensive background check and a cool down period, his plans would not have been hindered. Thanks to the failure of the respective agencies to prosecute Alexis for his transgressions, his criminal record remained clean until the current tragedy. It is not the laws on the books that failed the system here, but the failure to apply the laws on the books. It does not matter how restrictive the laws are, or how safe they make people feel, if they are not applied.

[1] National Rifle Association, Virginia State Constitutional Provisions, NRA-ILA (Sept. 22, 2013, 6:04 PM) (last updated July 12, 2013).
[2] VA. CONST. art. I, §13.
[3] VA. CODE. ANN. §18.2-308.2:2
[4] Id.
[5] Id.
[6] Id.
[7] Kevin Johnson, Why was Alexis able to buy guns?, USA TODAY (Sept. 17, 2013),
[8] Id.
[9] Id.
[10] Id.
[11] Id.
[12] VA. CODE. ANN. §18.2-308.2:3

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