FBI warned about loophole Fla. shooter used to obtain a gun

WASHINGTON — More than six months before the Dec. 6 shooting at a naval base in Pensacola, Fla., where a Saudi gunman used a weapon obtained using a hunting license exemption, the FBI issued a report warning about precisely this loophole. 

The FBI warning, dated May 22 and titled “Federal Hunting License Exception Could Be Exploited by Extremists or Criminal Actors Seeking to Obtain Firearms for Violent Attacks,” was sent from the bureau’s Office of Private Sector, according to a copy reviewed by Yahoo News. The warning encouraged businesses to be aware that “extremists and other criminal actors could exploit the federal statutory exception that allows non-immigrant visa holders” who normally can’t buy firearms or ammunition to legally purchase them “with a valid hunting license or permit.”

The warning goes on to note that foreign “terrorist organizations, including ISIS, have encouraged Westerners to exploit perceived gaps in gun laws to conduct mass casualty shooting attacks in their home countries,” and that foreign national visa holders “could use this hunting license exception to obtain firearms to commit violence in the Homeland.”

This warning is strikingly similar to the circumstances surrounding the shooting at Naval Air Station Pensacola where a Saudi national named Mohammed Alshamrani killed three people and wounded eight others. Alshamrani, who was killed by law enforcement at the scene, was identified by the FBI on Dec. 7, the day after the shooting, as a 21-year-old second lieutenant in the Royal Saudi Air Force who was attending a training program at the Navy facility. 

Alshamrani, who the FBI confirmed Tuesday had used the hunting license exemption to purchase a firearm, reportedly posted tweets just prior to the shooting that appeared to reflect the writings of terrorist organizations, like Al Qaeda and the so-called Islamic State. 

A woman who answered the phone at Uber’s Lock and Gun, the Pensacola retailer that reportedly sold the gun to Alshamrani, declined to comment on whether the store received the bulletin from the FBI. Two other Florida gun retailers told Yahoo News they had not received the FBI report and were unaware of the bureau’s Office of Private Sector. The owner of a third Florida gun shop told Yahoo News he does receive bulletins from the FBI office, but he could not recall the report on the hunting license loophole.

Rachel Rojas, the FBI special agent in charge of the investigation, told reporters on Sunday that Alshamrani carried out the shooting using a Glock 9 mm pistol that was “legally and lawfully purchased.” Nonresident immigrants can purchase handguns in Florida provided they meet certain exceptions including possessing a valid hunting license or if they work as a representative of a foreign government or law enforcement agency. 

The FBI referred questions about how Alshamrani obtained his gun to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. A spokesperson for the ATF confirmed it was a “legal sale,” but would not provide details on how Alshamrani qualified to purchase the weapon. An FBI spokesperson told Yahoo News that the Pensacola shooter legally bought the 9 mm Glock on July 20. The FBI also confirmed the shooter used a valid Florida hunting license to purchase the weapon, although “he may have qualified under other exceptions as well.” 

NBC News first reported that he bought his weapon through the hunting license loophole. 

During a press conference on Sunday, Florida GOP Gov. Ron DeSantis said Alshamrani was able to buy the firearm because of “a federal loophole that he took advantage of.”

Helen Aguirre Ferré, a spokesperson for the governor, said DeSantis is now pushing for changes to all the loopholes that allow foreigners to purchase firearms in the U.S. 

“The governor has made clear that he is a strong proponent of the Second Amendment for United States citizens, but foreign nationals need to be treated differently,” Ferré said. “Gov. DeSantis is advocating federal partners to require, at a minimum, improved vetting by both the U.S. and foreign governments.”

“The tragedy at Naval Air Station Pensacola could have been avoided, and that is more than regrettable,” she added. 

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The FBI report about the hunting license loophole was directed to “participating organizations” who receive briefings on relevant issues. The FBI declined to comment on where the hunting license loophole report was distributed and whether it went to the business that sold Alshamrani the weapon involved in the shooting. A Navy spokesperson referred all questions about Alshamrani’s possible motives and how he obtained his weapons to the FBI.

In her comments on Sunday, Rojas, the FBI agent in charge of the case, said the bureau is operating with "the presumption that this was an act of terrorism." Alshamrani has been linked to social media posts that criticized the U.S. for its support of Israel and military operations in Muslim countries. 

The FBI notice from May that warned of foreign extremists exploiting the hunting license loophole also provided a list of other “potential indicators of criminal activity related to Firearms Shops and Ranges,” such as references to foreign terrorist organizations. It encouraged recipients to take action including potentially declining firearms transactions and documenting information about the person involved.

“If you believe there is an imminent threat, contact your local police as soon as it is safe to do so,” the report said. 

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