New Mexico man regrets selling guns used in Western Psych shootings
March 31, 2012 4:00 AM
Allegheny County District Attorney
Two guns John Shick used in the deadly shooting at Western Psychiatric Institute and Clinic of UPMC on March 8.
By Michael A. Fuoco and Sadie Gurman Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
In a pre-arranged meeting last spring in New Mexico, John Karnis legally sold a young man two handguns, an extra ammunition clip and ammo for $810.
The cash transaction in an Albuquerque strip mall, resulting from a newspaper classified ad, took only 10 minutes to complete. At the time, it was an uneventful meeting in a state where private parties can sell guns anywhere they choose without background checks and paperwork.
But today, Mr. Karnis can't shake the sadness he feels because the pistols he sold last April to John Shick were used by the troubled 30-year-old in his March 8 shooting rampage at Western Psychiatric Institute and Clinic.
"It was terrorizing to be involved in something so tragic," he said Friday of providing the weapons Mr. Shick used to kill one Western Psych employee and wound five others before police fatally shot him.
"It was nearly a year ago, so he could have gotten [guns] from somewhere else. But the fact is it was me, and it's disheartening. It bothers me a lot," said the handyman by trade and a gun collector and occasional gun seller by avocation.
Mr. Karnis, 54, who police have refused to identify, spoke publicly Friday for the first time about the shootings to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
Like others across the country, Mr. Karnis was horrified when he learned from the Internet and TV of the shooting rampage in Pittsburgh. When authorities identified Mr. Shick as the shooter, it didn't register with him because he had forgotten the name of the gun buyer last April.
Only when agents from the Albuquerque office of the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives contacted him shortly after the Western Psych attack did he realize his connection to the carnage.
ATF traced one of the guns in the attack, a 9 mm Makarov, to Mr. Karnis because he purchased it two years ago from a gun dealer. He informed ATF agents he purchased the other weapon Mr. Shick used, a Beretta 9 mm, from a private owner.
In his attack, Mr. Shick fired 30 rounds, at least seven of which came from the Beretta, which had a clip that holds 15 rounds, and at least five of which came from the Makarov, a former Russian military sidearm that has a seven-round clip. Those 12 casings were recovered in the lobby. During the rampage, he had access to 102 rounds.
The agents showed Mr. Karnis pictures of the guns, and he identified them as the ones he sold the man last April. They showed him photographs of Mr. Shick, and he identified him as that man.
The classified ad Mr. Karnis ran April 20 in the Albuquerque Journal read:
Mr. Karnis received several calls about the guns, but no one wanted to pay what he was asking. And then Mr. Shick called and said he would pay the asking price for the Makarov and Beretta but didn't need the Ruger clips.
They made plans to meet in a strip mall parking lot. Mr. Karnis arrived first, and then Mr. Shick pulled up. They stood outside Mr. Karnis' SUV and looked at the guns.
"I didn't know him from Adam. He said he was up in the northeast [part of the city] where I live," Mr. Karnis recalled. "He was dressed casually, like a white-collar worker or a professional, a vest, dress clothes. He was quiet and answered questions. That was about it. He just seemed like a young man. He didn't act weird or have a twitch or anything. He was a quiet person.
"It seemed like he was aware of what he was buying. I did ask him why he wanted the weapons, what he was going to do with them and he said he wanted them for target practice or something along those lines."
In New Mexico, a handgun sale between private parties can be made if the buyer is 18 or older, is not a convicted felon and is a resident of the state, but there is no background check. By contrast, in Pennsylvania, the buyer in a private handgun sale must be 21 with no criminal or mental health commitment history. The buyer and seller must complete paperwork about their backgrounds that is then processed by a licensed gun dealer who performs a computerized background check.
Mr. Karnis said Mr. Shick showed him an identification card from New Mexico; it was not a driver's license, but he can't remember where it was from. He asked Mr. Shick if he was a convicted felon, and he said, "No." He did not ask him if he had been committed to a mental institution because the state's law for gun sales does not require a seller to do so.
Four months earlier, Mr. Shick tried unsuccessfully to purchase a gun in Portland, Ore., but was blocked because he had been committed to a mental institution in that city in January 2010. That commitment -- which Port of Portland police petitioned for after Mr. Shick assaulted an officer and yelled nonsensically -- precluded him from buying a weapon from gun dealers in that state. In Oregon, as in Pennsylvania, those who have been committed to a mental facility cannot possess firearms.
Homicide detectives know little about Mr. Shick's path from Portland to New Mexico to Pittsburgh, Cmdr. Thomas Stangrecki said Friday.
Allegheny County District Attorney Stephen A. Zappala Jr. this week said detectives were also trying to learn why Mr. Shick purchased the guns in April and whether it was a sign that he had been planning an attack even longer than they have surmised thus far.
"We believe that about a month before the shooting occurred, he may have started planning," the district attorney said. "There is evidence it may have been thought out," he said, declining to elaborate.
Mr. Karnis said because of his link to the Western Psych shooting, he will never sell or buy a gun again.
"It brought it home to me, that you're selling something that may get into the wrong hands. It's probably in the back of everyone's mind who sells guns," he said.
"It was depressing and devastating to actually be connected to something like that."