Zawahri originally attended Santa Monica High School, but was sent to Olympic High, a school for kids with academic or disciplinary issues. At Olympic, it was common knowledge among the students that Zawahri often browsed for assault weapons online. Family friends said he “had a fascination with guns.” In 2006, one student told an English teacher that Zawahri had invited him to his house, showed him his samurai sword and listed students he wanted to hurt. The teacher reported it to the principal, and soon law enforcement got involved. Police searched his house, but it is not clear if they found any weapons. Zawahri was also apparently watching YouTube videos on how to make pipe bombs and other explosives.
The teenager was removed from school and hospitalized for psychiatric evaluation at UCLA’s Neuropsychiatric Institute. He was released not long after, surprising many teachers.
Despite this record, Zawahri was somehow able to obtain a semiautomatic AR-15 assault rifle, 40 high-capacity magazines, and at least 1,300 rounds of ammunition. After a person is institutionalized for a psychiatric exam, they are banned from possessing firearms for five years — which would have let Zawahri get weapons after 2011.
Police are still tracing Zawahri’s weapons to try to determine how exactly he was able to stockpile so much ammo. One gun, a black powder handgun, is thought to be a “curio or relic type” of weapon that may have been in the family for years. The AR-15 assault rifle may have been banned for sale under California law.
Mental health has been a central issue of the gun debate, after multiple mass shooters showed warning signs of violence and instability yet were still able to get guns and wreak havoc. After Seung-Hui Choi, who had been declared a danger to himself or others, killed 32 people at Virginia Tech in 2007, Congress passed a law meant to improve reporting of people who had been involuntarily committed for background checks. However, the National Rifle Association managed to insert provisions that actually made it easier for people with mental illness records to get their gun rights restored.
Yet even if the background check system had been effective in stopping institutionalized violent individuals from buying guns from federally licensed dealers, Zawahri could have dodged a background check by buying his arsenal online or at a gun show without detection.