The semi-automatic assault-style rifle that authorities say was used by a Riverside County ex-con to shoot three California Highway Patrol officers — one of them fatally — was constructed using parts that allowed him to skirt the state's strict prohibition on such weapons, multiple law enforcement sources familiar with the investigation told NBC News Wednesday.
Aaron Nathaniel Luther, 49, had a criminal record dating back to 1992 including a decadelong stint in state prison after a conviction for attempted second-degree murder and an enhancement for the use of a firearm as well as one count of first-degree burglary and three counts of second-degree burglary, according to court records.
The felony conviction should have prohibited Luther, who was shot dead in a gunbattle with officers, from possessing purchasing or possessing any firearm under California law. But the sources said he was able to construct a homemade assault rifle outfitted with a high capacity magazine using unregulated parts still being investigated. Investigators are examining whether the parts were ordered on the Internet, through the mail or obtained through other unregulated means.
Andre Moye Jr. pulled Luther over and he was preparing to have his vehicle impounded when authorities said the suspect reached for a rifle and opened fire. Moye, who had been with the department two years, was pronounced dead a short time later. Two other officers are recovering after being shot in a gunbattle.
California law regulating assault-style weapons has been in place for nearly three decades. As currently written, it defines an assault weapon as centerfire rifle that has the capacity to accept a detachable magazine and includes features such as a pistol grip, folding or telescoping stock and threaded barrel. State legislators went further last year enacted mass shootings including Parkland, Florida and Las Vegas, banning possession of magazines that can accept more than 10 rounds of ammunition but the courts stayed enforcement pending the outcome of a lawsuit filed by firearms advocates.
Experts say that buying a legal, already assembled AR-15, and then taking it apart and rebuilding it to custom specifications is common.
In 2013, John Zawahri, 23, used an AR-15-style gun during the attack that left five people dead after firing about 100 rounds during the 10-minute rampage. He fired at passing cars, a bus, pedestrians as well as police. Authorities have said he had access to more than 1,300 rounds of ammunition.
Four years later Kevin Janson Neal used two AR-15 type semi-automatic rifles with multi-round magazines that he assembled himself in a shooting rampage in Northern California.
Neal was killed 45 minutes after he went on a shooting spree that left four of his five victims dead and 10 people injured, including seven children. Investigators later discovered the fifth victim, Neal's wife, beneath the floorboards of their home.
One of the high-powered rifles was found outside the grade school in rural Rancho Tehama Reserve that Neal riddled with bullets. The other weapon was found at the spot where Neal was killed in a gunbattle with officers.
Neal exploited a legal loophole that enabled him to get around California's tough gun laws by ordering the parts for a weapon that is illegal in that state — and putting it together at home.