Special Reports

Suspect secured rifle in Tacoma despite restraining order

Information about suspected sniper John Allen Muhammad's domestic violence restraining order had, in fact, been entered into a federal database, local law enforcement officials confirmed Monday.

That information could have kept a Tacoma gun shop from selling him the rifle used to kill 10 people near Washington, D.C.

The database, used by gun dealers for customer background checks, included the restraining order, which had been brought against Muhammad by his second ex-wife, Mildred Green.

The information was available, said officials with Pierce County and the Washington State Patrol, when Muhammad bought the Bushmaster semiautomatic rifle, a purchase federal officials believe was made at Bull's Eye Shooter Supply.

The restraining order was entered in March 2000 and was updated on May 16, 2002, said John Pirak, head of Pierce County's Law Enforcement Support Agency.

Muhammad apparently bought the rifle in June, so the required background check should have discovered the restraining order, officials said.

"The protection order should have shown up in the system as of May 16," said Lt. Sean Hartsock of the State Patrol.

Agents from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms have been at Bull's Eye since Thursday, trying to find records concerning the sale.

Bull's Eye owner Brian Borgelt still has the box the Bushmaster was shipped in from its manufacturer in Maine - but no record of its sale or documentation required under federal law about its owner.

ATF agents said they were interested in the Bushmaster's origin, in part because of Borgelt's past problems accounting for his inventory.

The agents said there was no record Muhammad had filled out a federal firearms application or that Borgelt had sent it to the FBI for the mandatory check.

Nor, the agents said, had Borgelt reported the rifle stolen as he would have been required to do within two days. It is federal crime for a licensed dealer not to keep records of a gun or to fail to report a gun that is stolen, with punishment of up to a year in jail.

Bull's Eye has been under investigation by ATF for several years. Two years ago, federal agents said, they audited the store and could not find sales records for 150 guns. Gun dealers are required to keep records of all purchases and sales.

Borgelt confirmed the audit, but said such checks are not unusual.

"If we had prior violations that exceeded the industry standard, we would not be in business," he said.

Borgelt said Bull's Eye is a reputable company.

"Our track record speaks for itself," he said. "We have been in business for nine years, and I am proud of it."

Firearms background checks differ slightly from state to state. Some rely on the federal government on all types of weapons purchases. Others maintain local records at the state level.

Washington is a mix. For purchases of long weapons such as rifles and shotguns, the federal government provides the background check. For handguns, the checks go to the state.

Pierce County shares criminal background information with the Washington Criminal Information Center. The center enters the data into the National Crime Information Center, administered by the FBI.

When a customer buys a rifle in Washington state, gun dealers must check the customer's background in the federal database.

Pirak and Hartsock say Muhammad's restraining order was in the NCIC system in June, at the time he reportedly bought the rifle.

So if the background check would have stopped him, how could Muhammad buy the rifle? Officials declined to speculate, but they mentioned several possibilities:

•Someone else with a clean record could have bought the gun for Muhammad.

•The gun was stolen.

•The gun dealer didn't perform the background check.

The New York Times contributed to this report.

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