How was Jacksonville shooting suspect Ryan Palmeter able to buy an AR-15-style rifle?

Ryan Palmeter, the alleged gunman who shot dead three people at a Dollar General store in Jacksonville, Florida, on Saturday was able to buy the weapons he used in the attack legally, despite once having been taken into the state’s care after suffering a mental health episode, law enforcement has said.

Palmeter was armed with an AR-15-style rifle and a Glock handgun and was wearing a tactical vest and face mask when he arrived in the discount store’s parking lot around 1pm on Saturday and fired 11 rounds into a black Kia, killing the driver, 52-year-old Angela Michelle Carr.

He subsequently entered the store in the city’s New Town neighbourhood and allowed some shoppers to leave before opening fire on those who remained, shooting dead store employee Anolt Joseph “AJ” Laguerre Jr, 19, and customer Jarrald De’Shaun Gallion, 29, before finally turning one of the guns on himself.

Speaking at a press conference on Sunday, Sheriff TK Waters explained that Palmeter had left “several manifestos” behind for his parents to find on his computer at the home he shared with them in Orange Park, Clay County, that outlined his white supremacist beliefs.

“Portions of these manifestos detail the shooter’s disgusting ideology of hate,” Sheriff Waters said.

“Plainly put, the shooting was racially motivated, and he hated Black people. He wanted to kill n******. That’s the one and only time I’ll use that word. I want to be very clear that there’s absolutely no evidence that the shooter is part of any large group. We know that he acted completely alone.”

However, the sheriff said there had been no prior reason to believe Palmeter represented a threat: “There was no criminal record, nothing. There were no red flags.”

As for the weapons used, Sheriff Waters said they had been acquired legally in April and June this year.

“In this situation, there was nothing illegal about him owning the firearms,” he said, stressing that the weapons had not belonged to the suspect’s parents, who had refused to allow him to keep firearms in their home.

A photo shared on the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office Facebook page over the weekend showed a close-up of one of the guns with at least two swastikas marked on it.

The AR-15-style weapon had “Palmetto State Armory” and “PA-15” engraved on it, with the manufacturer’s website describing the PA-15 model as “our interpretation of the legendary AR-15 rifle that you have grown to love”.

Ryan Palmeter (Bob Self/The Florida Times-Union/AP)
Ryan Palmeter (Bob Self/The Florida Times-Union/AP)

While Palmeter had no criminal record, he was previously involved in a 2016 domestic incident involving his brother James – who is reportedly now serving a jail sentence for armed robbery – but was not arrested, the sheriff said.

More significantly, he was also held in state custody in 2017 under Florida’s Baker Act, a statute that allows for people to be “taken to a receiving facility for involuntary examination” for up to 72 hours if they are considered a danger to themselves or others during a mental health crisis.

Speaking to CNN later on Sunday, Sheriff Waters explained: “If there is a Baker Act situation, they’re prohibited from getting guns.”

Asked why, in that case, Palmeter had been able to buy them, the sheriff said: “We don’t know if that Baker Act was recorded properly, whether it was considered a full Baker Act.”

The investigation is ongoing but the sheriff’s words appear to outline two possible scenarios – administrative error or a favourable ruling on Palmeter’s wellbeing  – that might explain why he was allowed to purchase the weapons after having been flagged as a cause for concern and taken in for examination by medical professionals under the Act.

Since Saturday’s attack, the National Rifle Association (NRA) has chosen to mount a defence of AR-style weapons, declaring on social media: “Millions of law-abiding citizens own and use AR-15s to defend themselves and their families.”