Special Reports

Tacoma gun stores scrutinized

Sniper suspect John Allen Muhammad may have bought two semiautomatic rifles in Tacoma that match the type federal officials say was used to kill 10 people.

There's a "a pretty good likelihood" Muhammad bought the semiautomatic .223-caliber rifle used in the shootings at Bull's Eye Shooter Supply in Tacoma, the store's owner said Thursday.

The federal warrant issued for Muhammad's arrest Wednesday also refers to another purchase of a rifle on or about May 23, 2000.

Muhammad had a .223-caliber Bushmaster XM15 rifle shipped and transported to him through Welcher's Gun Shop in Tacoma. But he had an active restraining order against him at the time, filed by his ex-wife Mildred in Pierce County Superior Court.

Possessing the rifle despite the restraining order violated federal law, according to the warrant. But the violation went unnoticed for more than two years.

Owners of Welcher's Gun Shop declined comment Thursday.

Federal agents spent Thursday morning reviewing gun sale records at the Bull's Eye store on Puyallup Avenue, near downtown Tacoma. The agents returned in the afternoon and continued working into the evening, said owner Brian Borgelt.

"We're getting the fine-tooth comb here."

Borgelt said the agents from the Federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms asked him not to reveal the details of their findings, but he confirmed that the gun was probably purchased there.

"It's a sinking feeling, definitely," said Borgelt, a former Army sniper instructor. "You always think that you won't be involved. That it's going to be somebody else."

Borgelt said he didn't believe the federal agents were investigating any potential violations by his store.

The gun that federal law enforcement officials have implicated in the shootings is a civilian version of the military's M-16 assault rifle made by Bushmaster Firearms, a private company in Maine.

The company's president said the gun was sold in June to a distributor in Washington state.

Borgelt said neither he nor his employees remember dealing with Muhammad. "We saw his picture and it didn't ring any bells at all."

Borgelt estimated that the store, which is the largest gun shop in Pierce County, sells about 100 Bushmasters a year.

The gun is popular with soldiers, he said. The shop currently has several racks filled with the black, military-style weapons, which also come in camouflage colors.

The version that Muhammad is believed to have purchased is among the higher-end models, Borgelt said. Equipped with custom sights, it sells for about $1,000, he estimated.

As he spoke, the 38-year-old Borgelt's cell phone rang repeatedly. "Everybody in the world is calling," he said, rubbing his face wearily.

Not only is it appalling to be linked to a series of murders, he said, but it's also discouraging when a "terrorist" like the sniper undermines the reputation of responsible gun owners.

"For every 10,000 or 100,000 good guys, there's one son of a bitch, and he's the one who gets all the press."

A former farmer from Nebraska, Borgelt opened the gun shop in 1992 after serving seven years in the Army, much of it as a sniper instructor at Fort Lewis.

He said he began to suspect the sniper had some military training, because of his ability to shoot accurately and make a clean escape - skills that Borgelt himself used to teach his students.

Sandi Doughton: 253-597-8516


Sean Robinson 253-597-8486