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Origin, ownership and legality of weapons in Santa Monica shooting under investigation

Details are slowly emerging about the life, alleged crimes and violent death of John Zawahri, but one key fact is still unknown: who owned the firearms used in the shooting and whether they were legally obtained.

Zawahri allegedly killed his father, brother and three other individuals with an AR-15-style rifle during a 10-minute shooting frenzy in Santa Monica. The Los Angeles Regional Crime Laboratory is analyzing it —  and a .44 caliber revolver  he left at the shooting scene in a duffel bag — said Santa Monica Police Sgt. Richard Lewis.

The police are still investigating who owned the weapons and whether they and about 1,300 rounds of ammunition also found in Zawahri's bag were legally purchased, Lewis said.

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Assault weapons are banned in California, but the description police provided of Zawahri's AR-15 style rifle does not make it clear if it qualified as an assault rifle, said Lindsay Nichols, an attorney for the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence. It would have to have certain features to enable the holder to fire a sustained number of rounds, one per trigger squeeze. 

Police have not yet said whether Zawahri, who reportedly had mental health problems in his teenage years, was legally entitled to possess firearms.

KCAL9 News reported Sunday that John Zawahri reportedly threatened students and teachers and made pipe bombs in 2006 when he was a junior at the school. A school resource officer told the station Zawahiri was put on a 72-hour psychiatric hold and later hospitalized for a month.

A person held on a 72-hour psychiatric hold who had threatened himself or others is temporarily barred from possessing firearms. Those held 14 days or longer would be permanently barred under federal law, according to Nichols. 

In California, people with criminal records and other "prohibited persons" including those with severe mental illness are added to the Department of Justice Firearms Prohibition List. It is not public, so it's not known if Zawahri was on it.

A low priority

It's a crime to attempt to buy weapons once you're on the prohibition list, but enforcing that law has been a low priority.

A second list available to law enforcement is also not public. It tracks people who bought or owned  guns legally, but later became ineligible to keep them after being convicted of a felony or violent misdemeanor, or being found mentally unstable, said Michelle Gregory, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Justice. Nearly 20,000 people fit that category.

That agency sends monthly reports of new additions to the list to local police departments throughout California, Gregory said.

A law that took effect in May increased the number of state firearms investigators from 33 to 69, and part of their duties will be to train local police departments to also use the list to take weapons away from people who are no longer permitted to possess them.

California is among the nation's most restrictive states for buying firearms. Buyers must wait 10 days to take delivery of a gun, and only then after passing a background check. Further gun controls are being considered in the state Legislature.