Florida school shooting suspect Nikolas Cruz, could legally purchase an AR-15 style weapon under federal law, even though he was barred from buying a handgun.
Nikolas Cruz wasn’t old enough to sip a beer, but federal law allowed the 19-year-old to buy a weapon powerful enough to kill 17 people in a matter of minutes.
He’s now facing murder charges in Wednesday’s attack on Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland — the deadliest school shooting since Sandy Hook.
Cruz purchased the Smith & Wesson M&P 15 rifle in February 2017 from Sunrise Tactical Supply in Coral Springs, officials said.
Cruz passed a background check, which looks at criminal history and whether someone has been found to be “mentally defective” by a court, said Peter Forcelli, the special agent in charge of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives in South Florida.
“He was ticking none of those boxes,” Forcelli said of the background check.
As is the case in most states, Floridians can buy assault-style weapons from federally licensed dealers once they reach age 18. Federal law requires a person be at least 21 years old to purchase a handgun.
Attorneys representing the gun shop owners said nothing about Cruz raised a red flag, and all state and federal laws were followed. The store is owned by Michael and Lisa Morrison, according to the Florida Department of State.
Douglas Rudman, a lawyer representing the Morrisons, described the owners as “good family people” who were “shocked and mortified anything like this could happen.”
They would like to see stronger regulations on flagging mental illness during background checks, he said.
“The Morrisons sold a lawful weapon to someone who was mentally ill,” Rudman said. “Someone who fell through the cracks. … Someone who was not put into any sort of database, and someone who was essentially allowed to go unchecked before walking into this store and purchasing a firearm.’’
Not everyone who voluntarily seeks mental health treatment is barred from buying a gun in Florida. Cruz was in mental health treatment until 14 months ago, when he stopped going, Broward Mayor Beam Furr said.
Gun store employees had no knowledge of Cruz’s medical history because it didn’t have to be reported to them, the attorneys said.
Stuart Kaplan, an attorney representing the business, called for raising the age to 21 to purchase an AR-15-style weapon, but he said the law allowed for the weapon to be legally sold to a teenager at the time of sale.
Sunrise Tactical Supply is tucked away in a suburban shopping center in Coral Springs. The shop is sandwiched between Just Kids Hairstyling and a personal wellness center.
The store will be closed “for the foreseeable future” out of respect for the people killed in Parkland, Rudman said. The attorneys did not say the store would stop selling AR-15-style guns.
One photo posted to Cruz’s Instagram account showed a half dozen guns on his bed, but the attorneys said Sunrise Tactical sold only one gun to Cruz.
The Gun Control Act of 1968 increased the age to buy a handgun to 21 but set the age for rifles and long guns at 18, said William Vizzard, an expert on gun laws and a professor at Sacramento State University.
At that time, the AR-15 — introduced in the early 1960s — was not easy to find, he said.
“Nobody bought them,” said Vizzard, a former ATF special agent. “Long guns were seen differently when the law was passed, and nobody has made a concerted effort to change that. They were all American and used for hunting and target shooting. The market has shifted.”
The National Rifle Association now calls the AR-15 “America’s most popular rifle.”
But AR-15-style weapons have also emerged as a common choice for mass shooters. AR-15-style guns were used at Sandy Hook, Las Vegas, San Bernardino, Calif., Sutherland Springs, Texas, and Aurora, Colo.
While more powerful rifles exist, AR-15-style guns are problematic because they are light, easy to conceal, have little recoil and can carry large volumes of ammunition, Vizzard said.
“They are really deadly in mass shootings,” he said. “They are easy to shoot, and they carry a lot of rounds.”