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August 17, 2009

“You can commit mass murder then still go to heaven.”

On August 4, George Sodini , 48, walked into the LA Fitness Center in Collier, Pennsylvania, wearing black workout gear and a headband. In his pocket was a .32 semiautomatic handgun. He carried a duffel bag with three more handguns: two 9mm semiautomatic pistols with 30-round clips and a .45 caliber revolver. All told, he was carrying 150 rounds of ammunition.

Sodini entered an exercise room where an aerobics class was taking place, turned off the lights, and opened fire, emptying one of the 9mm pistols. He then drew the second 9mm pistol and continued firing. In his last act, Sodini drew the .45 revolver and shot himself in the head. When the smoke cleared, at least 36 rounds had been fired and Sodini and three women lay dead. Sodini’s victims were Heidi Overmier, 46; Elizabeth Gannon, 49; and Jody Billingsley, 37. Nine other women were wounded in the shooting.

Within minutes of the tragedy becoming national news, the internet community discovered a journal that Sodini had posted online. In it, Sodini provided his name, date of birth, and hometown—and in a series of entries dating back to November 2008 detailed his plans to commit mass murder. Sodini asked “Why do this?? To young girls?” and made it clear that it was because he was lonely, suicidal, and deeply angry at women, who he felt had spurned him his entire life. He took comfort, however, in a conversation with his pastor at Tetelestai Church in Pittsburgh, who convinced him that “you can commit mass murder then still go to heaven.” The journal even detailed a previous failed murder-suicide attempt by Sodini on January 6 of this year. “I chickened out!” he wrote. “I brought the loaded guns, everything. Hell!

Authorities had also had previous contact with Sodini. Jack Rickard, a deacon at Tetelestai Church, reported Sodini after he harassed a woman there. A state trooper called Sodini to discuss the matter with him, but no charges were filed. Sodini was asked to leave the church, however, and he did.

A week before the shooting, Sodini came to authorities’ attention again when they received reports that a man on a public bus in Pittsburgh had pulled out what appeared to be a grenade from a computer bag. The man saw a passenger on the bus watching him and said, “It is real. Do you want to hold it?” Soon after, police questioned Sodini—who matched a description provided by the passenger. Sodini denied any involvement, and escaped charges when the passenger couldn’t confirm him as the suspect. After the shooting at LA Fitness Center, Allegheny County Police found a note in Sodini’s home that referred to the grenade incident. “Don’t worry about that; it was a fake,” it said.

Despite all this, Sodini purchased the firearms using in the shooting legally (and bought one of his high capacity-magazines and a magazine loader from Eric Thompson, the online gun dealer who also armed mass shooters Seung-Hui Cho and Steven Kazmierczak). Sodini also held a permit to carry a concealed handgun in the state of Pennsylvania.

The screening process for both purchasing firearms and obtaining a concealed carry permit in Pennsylvania involves a computerized background check. That check searches a state database and also the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS), the federal database maintained by the FBI. Because he had no significant criminal record, and because he had not been involuntarily committed to a mental institution or adjudicated as a “mental defective,” Sodini passed those checks. No background investigation is conducted in Pennsylvania to determine if there is any significant history that is missed by the computer check (this is despite the fact that the NICS database is missing millions of records that should be disqualifying purchasers). The result is that Pennsylvania authorities allowed Sodini to purchase firearms and carry a handgun in public without even looking for what it took bloggers minutes to find—a publicly-posted journal detailing his plans to slaughter women.

George Sodini is the fourth confirmed concealed carry permit holder to commit mass murder this year. Like him, the others—Frank Garcia, Michael McClendon, and Richard Poplawski—all had obvious red flags in their background that should have prevented them from obtaining their permits. It has been clear for some time in America that our weak gun laws make it easy for dangerous individuals to purchase firearms. The frequency with which they are obtaining permits to carry concealed handguns in public is a phenomenon that is even more disturbing.

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