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FBI background check blocked CVPA shooter from buying a gun. Then he found a private seller

Interim St. Louis Police Chief Michael Sack addresses the media
Brian Munoz
St. Louis Public Radio
Interim St. Louis Police Chief Michael Sack addresses the media Wednesday during a press conference at St. Louis Metropolitan Police headquarters.

The gunman at Central Visual Performing Arts High School obtained his firearm from a private seller after an FBI background check blocked his attempt to buy one from a licensed dealer, St. Louis Police said Thursday.

Orlando Harris tried to purchase his gun at a dealer in St. Charles, but was rejected, Sgt. Charles Wall said in a statement. Police did not provide details of the rejection.

Wall said that Harris then obtained the gun “from a private seller, who legally purchased the weapon from a federally licensed dealer in December 2020.”

“There is no existing law which would have prevented the private sale between the original purchaser and the suspect in this case,” Wall said.

Wall also said Missouri doesn’t have a so-called red flag law, which would start the process to take away a gun from someone who is a threat to themselves or others. That means, Wall said, St. Louis police officers did not have authority to temporarily seize the rifle when they responded to the suspect’s home when called by the suspect’s mother earlier this month.

Our original story

Updated at 7: 15 p.m. Oct. 26 with new details

Family members of the gunman who killed two people during a shooting rampage at Central Visual and Performing Arts High School had recently asked police to take the gun later used in the shooting from the home, St. Louis police said Wednesday.

The family, which is cooperating with the investigation, had been monitoring the 19-year-old's mental health and had helped him get treatment and medication.

“They’re also heartbroken over this incident,” interim St. Louis Metropolitan Police Chief Michael Sack said. “The impression I get from the investigators that spoke to the mother was they did everything they could have done, but sometimes that’s not enough.”

Investigators are still trying to determine what drove Orlando Harris, a former student, to break into the high school on South Kingshighway on Monday and begin shooting with an AR-15-style assault weapon.

Police found written documents in the suspect’s car in which he had described his feelings of isolation and loneliness. His family had regularly checked his room and mail, Sack said.

“Whenever they noticed him stepping out of line or going out of turn they always worked to get him back on his medication, back on therapy, whatever he needed,” he said.

On Oct. 15, when officers responded to a domestic disturbance call at the family's home, the suspect’s mother asked them to remove the gun because she didn’t want it in the house, police said.

The officers determined that the suspect was lawfully permitted to possess the firearm, police said.

Police said a third party known to the family then took the firearm so it would no longer be in the home, but at some point the suspect regained possession of it and used it in the shooting Monday.

Investigators are trying to determine where the shooter bought the gun, Sack said, adding that if he bought it from a private seller, it could be difficult to trace.

Brian Munoz
St. Louis Public Radio
Jay Greenberg, special agent in charge of the FBI’s St. Louis field office, listens to interim chief Michael Sack on Wednesday during a press conference at St. Louis Metropolitan Police’s headquarters.

An increase in hoaxes

Since Monday’s fatal school shooting in south St. Louis, the region has an increase in shooting threats called into local schools, federal investigators said.

FBI officials say agents can’t investigate every hoax, so they’re sending local police officers to schools.

The hoaxes are usually easy to track down, said Jay Greenberg, special agent in charge of the FBI’s St. Louis field office. But because law enforcement has to investigate every one, it means more police are in local schools.

“They are also seeing an increased armed presence every day in their school regardless where they are across the metro region, which is leading to additional trauma for those students,” Greenberg said.

One school had to initiate a lockdown after a threat on Tuesday.

Since two gunmen killed 13 people at Columbine High School in Colorado in 1999, it's common to see more local people making threats of shootings after one occurs in their region, he said.

Brian Munoz
St. Louis Public Radio
Mayor Tishaura Jones, flanked by U.S. Rep. Cori Busch, left, and Health Director Dr. Mati Hlatshwayo Davis, speaks to the media on Wednesday during a press conference at the St. Louis Metropolitan Police’s headquarters following a school shooting that left two dead.

City, schools react

City officials said they’re working with St. Louis Public Schools to coordinate services for students and families affected by the traumatic event.

Representatives from the St. Louis Department of Health met Tuesday with school representatives and other local mental health organizations, said Dr. Mati Hlatshwayo Davis, the city's health director.

Their immediate focus was to provide services to the shooting’s victims, but St. Louis also needs to be able to get people consistent mental health treatment before terrible events occur, she said.

“Establishing any supportive resources or interventions related to mental health is not a solution, but rather our tools for healing from trauma that our community experiences as a result of incidents related to gun violence,” Hlathswayo Davis said.

The shooting was symptomatic of a larger crisis or violence and a lack of mental health treatment, said Haliday Douglas, president and CEO of the St. Louis Public Schools Foundation.

“Issues like Monday, they're connected to a greater picture that the community needs to come together,” he said.

 Follow Sarah on Twitter: @Petit_Smudge

Sarah is the health reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.
Jason is the politics correspondent for St. Louis Public Radio.

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