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Crime & Justice

The Gun on the Pavement: Marc Haefele on the Santa Monica shootings and John Zawahri's gun

A police photo of John Zawahri's old Army Colt, found on the pavement near Marc Haefele's home in Santa Monica.
A police photo of John Zawahri's old Army Colt, found on the pavement near Marc Haefele's home in Santa Monica.
Law enforcement/Brian Watt

It looked kind of familiar, the handgun that John Zawahri didn’t get around to using in his Santa Monica  murder rampage last week.  Lying there on the pavement, three blocks from my home. Among an infantry squad’s worth of ammunition for his automatic rifle and the other paraphernalia of mass murder.

Zawahri was reportedly carrying 1,300 rounds of .223 caliber  ammunition—hundreds of dollars worth of cartridges at today’s prices. Most of these cartridges were loaded into rifle magazines of 20 to 30 rounds capacity— the sale, but not the possession, of which is a felony in this state, according to the Attorney General’s website. The gun he used turned out to be a replica  AR-15, assembled from presumably mail-order parts.   Both the AR-15 (a version of which was long the US Army's standard rifle) and its imitations are illegal in this state. Particularly with those super-sized magazines.  Just having a gun like this in your closet is a very serious crime.

This one weapon killed five people within a short walking distance of where I live.  It happened when we were off shopping late that June 7 Friday morning. We returned to find our streets blocked by police cars from as far away as Redondo Beach. We then discovered there had been a fatal shooting, centered at the community college that peacefully anchors Santa Monica’s Sunset Park area. Like most of our neighbors we stayed inside, waiting for an all clear that would not come until the next day.   Waiting for the final death toll, too.

By now, we all know Zawahri’s story. Allegedly he grew up in a terribly dysfunctional and violent immigrant family. He had mental health problems, anger issues, purportedly once tried to build a pipe bomb and used his classroom computer to visit weapons and explosives web sites.  He dropped through all the levels of the local school system and bounced out of it.  This was not one of those “He was always such a quiet person” perps.  He was a screamer whose outbursts scared the neighbors.  He was obviously disturbed and dangerous. But he seemed to get no meaningful help. He did get his hands on a home-built battlefield weapon and enough ammo to fight a war.  Enough to kill half his family with and then three people he could not possibly have known. To wound many others and to gravely shake a community that had not seen multiple homicides in over a decade.  And never one this random.

How he got  all that ammunition is another mystery.

The gun-control aspects of this episode haven’t been discussed much yet. There are no arguments we are not by now tired of making, tired of hearing. There is a wide range of opinion, ranging from the NRA to the Atlantic Monthly, that  the problem is we do not have enough guns out there, implying that had the driver of the city bus Zawahri strafed had been armed, or the college librarian, perhaps, or the slain college groundskeeper, the tragedy might have been mitigated.  To a saner body of opinion, it is obvious that Zawahri’s  AR-15 was one gun too many. (Like the gun that killed the people in the Colorado theater, or was used in the Arizona massacre, or the gun that killed all those children in Connecticut.)

The other gun he had, the 1860 .44 Army revolver, looked exactly like the weapon that had been stolen from my old home, years ago. What chance of that? I do not know exactly why I had that gun in my dresser drawer. People who are fearful in the way I used to be think of guns as a hedge against unknown danger. We buy guns, they often get stolen, instantly going into the hands of criminals. 

They rarely return to honest hands. It almost certainly wasn’t my old Colt .44. But if it were, and he had he killed someone with it…

I’d be feeling the remorse that, I deeply hope, whoever provided John Zawahri with those AR 15 components is feeling right now.

Marc Haefele comments on the arts and politics for Off-Ramp