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Could the UVa tragedy have been prevented? Scrutiny on the suspect’s gun conviction, failed background check

Christopher Darnell Jones Jr. had been on the radar of University of Virginia and law enforcement officials before he allegedly opened fire on fellow students on a bus.
A second-year biology student at the University of Virginia visits a memorial to three students who were killed in Charlottesville. Mike Kropf / AP

CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. — Still reeling from a shooting that left three University of Virginia football players dead and two other students wounded, authorities have pledged to investigate the suspect’s prior moves to determine if warning signs were missed that could have prevented Sunday’s carnage.

Christopher Darnell Jones Jr., who is being held at the Albemarle-Charlottesville Regional Jail, is accused of firing a gun in what appeared to be a targeted attack on specific fellow students.

The mayhem unfolded on a bus with about two dozen students returning to campus from a class field trip to Washington, D.C., officials said.

D’Sean Perry, Devin Chandler and Lavel Davis Jr. were killed. Marlee Morgan and Michael Hollins were wounded, officials said.

The motive behind the bloodshed remains unknown.

What is an established fact is that Jones had previously drawn the attention of law enforcement and university officials.

A Virginia State Police crime scene investigation truck on the scene of an overnight shooting at the University of Virginia, Monday, Nov. 14, 2022, in Charlottesville. Va.
A Virginia State Police investigation truck on the scene of a shooting at the University of Virginia on Monday in Charlottesville.Steve Helber / AP

A hazing probe and a gun conviction

There was a gun conviction officials at the state’s elite flagship university only recently learned about as a result of a hazing probe, the details of which were unknown. There were also attempts to buy a rifle and a pistol that placed Jones under the scrutiny of Virginia State Police.

On Thursday, university officials asked state Attorney General Jason S. Miyares to appoint an "outside special counsel" to conduct an independent review of the university’s response to the shooting.

“I am glad that a special counsel will conduct a review regarding the threats posed by the suspect in Sunday’s horrific shooting and that the Virginia State Police will oversee a thorough criminal investigation into the tragedy," Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., said in a statement to NBC News on Friday.

"Their findings will be critical to piecing together a fuller picture of what led to this horrific act of violence and what types of specific additional measures should be enacted at the state and federal levels to protect Americans from future attacks.”

University officials also requested the counsel investigate whether there were missteps.

“We request that the special counsel review all relevant University policies and procedures and make recommendations if opportunities for improvement or needs for change are identified. We will cooperate fully with your office and the special counsel who conducts the review,” university President James E. Ryan and Rector Whittington W. Clement wrote in a letter to Miyares.

The letter noted that university police have requested state police assume control of the criminal investigation.

Miyares’ office agreed to the independent investigation, which will lead to a “public report,” according to a statement.

D'Sean Perry, Lavel Davis Jr., and Devin Chandler.
D'Sean Perry, Lavel Davis Jr. and Devin Chandler.University of Virginia Athletics

Gun conviction was never relayed to UVa committee

On Monday, officials began painting a disturbing picture of Jones, a former football player listed on the school's gridiron roster in 2018.

University Police Chief Timothy Longo told reporters the university’s “threat assessment team” had learned about Jones in September after a third party, who was not a student, reported that he spoke about having a gun. He said the school’s student affairs office interviewed Jones’ roommate, who had not seen the suspect with a gun.

It wasn’t clear if the school’s internal investigation of Jones possibly having a gun ended with that roommate’s interview.

Jones had also been involved in the campus hazing probe, which was closed due to uncooperative witnesses, Longo said.

More coverage of the deadly University of Virginia shooting

More disclosures about Jones' past were made public.

On Tuesday, university officials admitted they learned Jones had been convicted of a misdemeanor for a concealed weapons violation in 2021.

But it was unclear whether the revelation about his criminal history would have been enough for the university to take timely, serious action against him.

University spokesman Brian Coy said that it was “around mid-September” that the school uncovered Jones’ gun incident and that “he had failed to disclose a conviction to the university, which is a requirement of university policy.”

The Office of Student Affairs moved Oct. 27 “to escalate his case for disciplinary action,” the statement said.

But officials said they realized only after Sunday’s shooting that the report of his conviction was never relayed to the University Judiciary Committee.

While the student-led University Judiciary Committee might have been in a position to act against Jones, the school said that in “order to serve due process, their proceedings customarily take weeks or months.”

“In the wake of the shooting yesterday, Student Affairs officials discovered that the report had not been transmitted to the University Judiciary Committee (UJC), and are working to correct that,” the school said Monday.

Jones made his first appearance in court Wednesday over a video link. Prosecutor James Hingeley of the Albemarle County Commonwealth’s Attorney’s Office said a witness saw Jones shoot Chandler in his sleep.

Hingeley revealed in court Jones’ previous scrapes with the law.

He was arrested in February 2021 in Chesterfield County, Virginia, on a concealed weapons violation, Hingeley said. Jones was convicted in June 2021 and given a 12-month suspended sentence, he said.

When Jones was arrested in Chesterfield County, he had outstanding warrants out of Petersburg on charges of hit-and-run with property damage and reckless driving, Hingeley said. Jones was given a 12-month suspended sentence on each of the charges in October 2021, he said.

Gun purchase came months after failed background check

Jones’ apparent fondness for guns also put him on the radar of law enforcement at least two times.

He tried to buy a handgun from Dance’s Sporting Goods in Colonial Heights, Virginia, on Dec. 31, 2018, when he was younger than 21, store owner Marlon Dance said in statement.

Jones returned to the same store July 8, 2021, the statement said. He attempted to purchase a Smith & Wesson M&P15-22, a .22-caliber rifle, but “failed the background check,” the owner said.  

Both attempted purchases were forwarded to the Virginia State Police "for further action," the statement said.

Virginia State Police spokesperson Corinne Geller said there is “an active investigation into an attempted purchase of a firearm on July 8,” 2021. The agency’s Firearms Transaction Center denied Jones’ request, she said, based on a pending charge.

Geller did not disclose the charge, but NBC affiliate WWBT of Richmond reported it stemmed from the hit-and-run crash Jones was involved in Aug. 9, 2020, in Petersburg.

“The pending charge was reduced to a misdemeanor by the court in October 2021, thereby removing the prohibition against future purchases,” Geller said.

That paved the way for Jones this year to buy two guns from Dance’s Sporting Goods — the same store that denied him in 2018 and 2021.

Jones bought a Ruger AR-556 rifle Feb. 19 and a Glock 45 9 mm pistol with an additional magazine July 8, the store said in its statement.

Virginia State Police officials have not disclosed the type of gun used in the week’s rampage, but said it was turned over to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives “as evidence for processing.”

Virginia law does spell out a procedure for law enforcement to petition a court to confiscate weapons and block gun sales to someone who is a deemed credible risk.

However, Allison Anderman, senior counsel and director of local policy at the Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, said she'd struggle to blame any police officer for not flagging Jones.

"From the information I have, I cannot tell whether this would have been a viable option for law enforcement, though his convictions may have been evidence to support this allegation," she said. 

T. Christian Heyne, vice president of policy at Brady United Against Gun Violence, said that in hindsight, he thinks Virginia police could have gone to court against Jones, but he added that they would’ve needed additional evidence — more than what’s known now — to restrict him from acquiring weapons.

“It’s probably missing one piece and what I’ll be curious about coming out is: Was there anybody else who identified that he was acting dangerously?” Heyne said Friday, referring to people in Jones' circle. “It’s like a series of cracks that he slipped through.”

Antonio Planas reported from Charlottesville and Marlene Lenthang and David K. Li from New York.