Jacksonville Shooter Bought Guns Legally before Racist Attack That Killed 3

Photo for The Washington Post by Saul Martinez
Trisha James, center, in black shirt, with Sabrina Rozier and Ieasia Gallion, 4, gather with others affected by the shooting in Jacksonville.

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – A White gunman who killed three Black people at a Jacksonville Dollar General store Saturday legally purchased the two firearms used in the racially motivated attack, local law enforcement confirmed.

The man, identified Sunday as 21-year-old Ryan Christopher Palmeter of Clay County, Fla., on Saturday drove to Edward Waters University, a historically Black college, but was refused entry, according to the school. He then drove to the nearby store, where he opened fire using an AR-15-style rifle inscribed with Nazi insignia, authorities said.

Police described a methodic rampage that lasted less than 11 minutes and killed Angela Michelle Carr, 52; Anolt Joseph Laguerre Jr., 19, a Dollar General employee; and Jerrald De’Shaun Gallion, 29.

Jacksonville police on Sunday said law enforcement had been called about Palmeter previously in a domestic incident, and he also had been held during a mental health crisis. But those cases did not result in a criminal record, so there was no legal reason to stop him from acquiring the guns he purchased this year between April and July.

“There was no criminal arrest history. There is nothing we could have done to stop him from owning a rifle or a handgun,” Jacksonville Sheriff T.K. Waters said during a news conference Sunday. “There were no red flags.”

He said Palmeter was “100 percent lucid” during the shooting.

Palmeter is thought to have acted alone and did not know the victims. Local law enforcement said that he “hated Black people” and left behind evidence that the attack was racially motivated. About 30 percent of Jacksonville’s 970,000 residents are Black.

Waters said during a Saturday news conference that Palmeter detailed a “disgusting ideology of hate” toward Black people in writings before the attack. The FBI’s Jacksonville office is investigating the shooting as a hate crime, the agency said in a statement posted on social media.

“The Justice Department is investigating this attack as a hate crime and an act of racially motivated violent extremism,” Attorney General Merrick Garland said in a statement Sunday. He also extended condolences to “the loved ones of the victims and to the Jacksonville community as they mourn an unimaginable loss.”

In a timeline of Saturday’s events, Waters said Palmeter drove to Jacksonville in neighboring Duval County at about 11:39 a.m. and parked in a lot behind the library of the university, where he was observed getting dressed, and was seen wearing a black bulletproof vest and latex gloves.

He then drove to the dollar store. He first shot Carr in her vehicle, then entered the store and killed the Laguerre. Dollar General issued a statement late Sunday saying it mourned his death as well as the killings of two customers.

Waters said Palmeter allowed several to leave the store, including some White people, during the attack. The third victim, Gallion, was shot when he entered the store with his girlfriend after others had fled through a back door.

Palmeter then messaged his father, telling him to check his computer, where a suicide note and other content was found. His father called law enforcement after the shooting had begun. Police reached the store 11 minutes after the rampage began and heard a gunshot they think was Palmeter taking his own life.

Edward Waters University, which has about 1,200 students, went into lockdown Saturday. Access was restricted until the all-clear was given at 4:35 p.m. Saturday, the college said.

Palmeter appeared to be on the campus only briefly before being confronted by a security officer. “The individual refused to identify themselves and was asked to leave,” the college said in a statement, adding that the person “returned to his car without incident.”

It’s not clear why Palmeter chose to park at the college, but the sheriff said the shooter did not appear to be targeting anyone there. “It looks to me that he went there to change into whatever he needed to change into,” said Waters, referring to the shooter’s tactical gear. “He had an opportunity to do violence there; he did not,” he said.

Video surveillance footage shared by local police showed Palmeter – a heavyset man wearing a mask and vest – entering the store with a rifle and quickly taking aim.

Law enforcement officials have begun probing Palmeter’s background after it was revealed he was held in 2017 under a state rule called the Baker Act, which allows people to be held for examination for up to 72 hours during a mental health crisis.

He was also involved in what officers described as a “domestic call” at his house in 2016 during an incident with his brother, though he was not arrested. Waters confirmed on Sunday that Palmeter had no criminal record.

Late Sunday, the scene of the shooting was quiet. Police tape still blocked off intersections near the store.

Deputies in sheriff’s vehicles kept the road closure in effect. Flowers were piled up at the traffic signal at Canal Street and Kings Road. Uniformed officers stayed in front of the store.

During an afternoon vigil, local leaders and religious figures called for unity after the tragedy.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) spoke briefly at the event, where he said money had been set aside in the Florida budget to provide additional security at Edward Waters University. An announcement would follow on Monday, he said.

“We are not going to let people be targeted based on their race. We are going to stand up and we are going to do what we need to do to make sure that evil does not triumph in the state of Florida,” DeSantis said. Mourners briefly jeered the governor – who has come under fire for his revamp of Black history education in the state – before Jacksonville Councilwoman Ju’Coby Pittman stepped in, calling on the crowd to put partisanship aside.

Photo for The Washington Post by Saul Martinez
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, center, said money had been set aside in the state budget to provide additional security at Edward Waters University.

The shooting came one day before the 63rd anniversary of one of the most heinous events in Jacksonville’s racial history, “Ax Handle Saturday,” when 200 Ku Klux Klan members attacked a group of Black people conducting a peaceful sit-in to protest Jim Crow laws in 1960.

The dollar store attack represents the 34th mass killing in the United States, according to the Mass Killing Database maintained by Northeastern University, USA Today and the Associated Press.

It occurred on the same day as thousands gathered in Washington to warn that racial progress in America is being unraveled at an event marking the 60th anniversary of the day that the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. led 250,000 people in the March on Washington.

Relatives of King, who spoke at the event, later expressed sorrow over the killings, adding that the shooting is evidence of the urgent need to continue to address racial injustice in America.

“It’s so tragic. We have got to, as a society, find a way to navigate through issues. You don’t have to like me, but we have to understand how to deal civilly with issues and we’ve got to do something to change that,” Martin Luther King III said in an interview Sunday on CNN’s “State of the Union.”

At a Sunday church service several miles from the store, tearful mourners gathered, including Jacksonville Mayor Donna Deagan (D), and a pastor urged people to avoid letting sadness turn to rage. “If any of you are like me, I’m fighting, trying to not be angry,” the Rev. Willie Barnes told about 100 congregants, according to an Associated Press report.

President Biden released a statement Sunday afternoon condemning the attack, noting there was added symbolism in the killings “fueled by hate-filled animus” that took place on the 60th anniversary of the March on Washington.

“Even as we continue searching for answers, we must say clearly and forcefully that white supremacy has no place in America. We must refuse to live in a country where Black families going to the store or Black students going to school live in fear of being gunned down because of the color of their skin,” he said.

The attack follows at least two other public shootings in recent days, including one at an Oklahoma high school football game that left a teen dead and another incident that saw at least seven injured when a shooter opened fire near a Boston parade.

It comes just 15 months after 10 Black people were killed during a racially motivated shooting at a grocery store in Buffalo by a White 18-year-old.